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Santa Rosa City Council agrees to discuss rent control

The Santa Rosa City Council agreed to explore a wide range of fixes for the affordable housing crisis Tuesday, including a rent control ordinance that some housing advocates worried would be passed over in favor of efforts to boost housing inventory.

The council sought the midyear shuffling of its priorities to get city staff working more deliberately on solutions to the skyrocketing rents that are displacing many renters in the city and countywide.

Councilwoman Julie Combs said she was impressed with the amount of work that the council and City Manager Sean McGlynn were committing to undertake in the coming months on affordable housing and a range of other important issues.

“This is ambitious,” Combs said. “I have never seen a council trying grapple with this many things in this kind of a time period.”

In addition to scheduling a series of study session in the coming months on affordable housing issues, the council agreed to move up a discussion of the reunification of Old Courthouse Square to September, which downtown business leaders had sought.

The majority of the meeting Tuesday, however, focused on affordable housing and whether the council should schedule discussions, mostly between September and November, to explore a range of potential solutions.

In addition to rent control, other proposals include fast-tracking new apartment complexes, imposing affordable housing fees on businesses of more than 10 people, dedicating additional funds to help affordable housing projects get constructed, and protecting people with housing vouchers from discrimination.

Mayor John Sawyer had hinted Monday that he wasn’t interested in pursuing rent control, preferring instead to focus on speeding the construction of a variety of needed housing units.

But Sawyer said Tuesday that he was willing to go forward with McGlynn’s proposal for an in-depth review of rent control in September even though it’s not where he would choose to begin.

“I’m less concerned about having the conversation than with not having it,” Sawyer explained.

Taking rent control off the table now would only leave the question of whether it was right for Santa Rosa unanswered, and could reduce broad support for other approaches the city may ultimately take, he said.

The council voted 6-0 in favor of the changes to work plan, which loosely guides what issues city staff works on and when they are brought before the council for a decision.

Some council members have expressed frustration that the body hasn’t been able to move more swiftly on affordable housing issues, noting that they are spending an inordinate amount of time discussing what issues should be discussed and when.

While acknowledging the “huge amount of work” the new work plan represented, Vice Mayor Chris Coursey hinted at that frustration in some of his remarks.

“I’m looking forward to getting to it and getting this job done, or at least started,” Coursey said. “We’re done with scheduling. Now it’s time to get to work.”

Several residents urged the council to aggressively tackle the issue and not to dismiss rent control as an option.

Sara Jones said she agreed that the lack of housing inventory was a “crisis that demands immediate solutions.” But she urged the council to think of rent control as a way to protect people in danger of losing their homes.

“Many lives are being torn apart,” she said.

Jennifer Parr, a social worker, said she is seeing a sharp increase in the numbers of mothers with young children who are homeless because the shelters are full and not enough affordable housing units are available

“When you actually live it or work with people who are actually experiencing it, it’s absurd,” Parr said. “It’s real and it’s everywhere and it needs immediate attention.”

And it isn’t just affecting the clients she works with, she said.

“I’m barely surviving in Sonoma County with a good job,” she said.

Councilwoman Erin Carlstrom was absent from the meeting. According to her Twitter feed, Carlstrom was in Washington, D.C., attending a conference of the Young Democrats of America. She is running for president of the organization.

The plan calls for discussion of a commercial linkage fee Aug. 18, rent control on Sept. 1, and housing voucher discrimination on Sept. 15.

A session on Oct. 20 will focus on in-lieu housing fees, streamlining of transit-oriented projects, and requiring developers to set aside some units as affordable.

Finally, dedicating additional funds to affordable housing, streamlining permitting, and fast-tracking low- to moderate-income multifamily housing projects will be explored on Nov. 3.

Coursey proposed the council schedule another meeting later in November to vote every proposal up or down, but it wasn’t clear if that would happen or if the council would make decisions as it goes along.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. ?On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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