Santa Rosa City Council to consider temporary ban on some rent increases

The Santa Rosa City Council on Tuesday is set to consider what would be an extraordinary move to curb rent increases of more than 3 percent throughout the city as one way to deal with a homelessness problem exacerbated by the area’s increasingly tight rental housing market.

The proposal, introduced by Councilwoman Julie Combs, one of the city’s most outspoken homeless advocates, comes amid the City Council’s search for ways to expand homeless outreach programs and address the shortage of affordable housing.

In recent months, some council members have signaled support for a rent control ordinance, but the city has yet to explore the issue in detail.

For her part, Combs has voiced concerns that if the council signals a willingness to go down that road today, it could trigger landlords to hike rents before the council can act.

“I worry that, out of fear, some landlords will jack up their rents and we will have a public health problem with people getting kicked out of their apartments,” Combs said.

A special council meeting has been called for 5 p.m., when the council was already scheduled to be in session, to discuss Combs’s proposal. It calls for a 45-day ban on rent increases greater than 3 percent for apartments built before 1995. Single-family homes and condominiums, as well as apartments built after 1995, would be exempt from any local rent control due to restrictions on municipal rent control established by a 1995 state law.

Five of the seven council members would need to back the measure for it to pass, and there are some doubts around City Hall that the proposal has such support.

Unlike San Francisco and some other Bay Area cities, Santa Rosa has no rent control laws that govern the increases that landlords can impose on tenants beyond modest protections for seniors in mobile home parks.

Even a temporary ban on rent increases above 3 percent would appear to be an unprecedented action in recent city history.

Combs’s proposal would come under a so-called urgency ordinance, which differs from other city laws in that it can go into effect immediately upon passage. Such measures can also be enacted with less public notice than regular city ordinances, which require advance notice on council agendas and a second reading before becoming law.

The first public notice of the special meeting was at 5:01 p.m. Monday when City Clerk Terri Griffin sent out an email announcing it. The council doesn’t have to alert the public before it considers urgency measures, but did so Monday “out of an abundance of caution,” said City Attorney Caroline Fowler. Such ordinances can be discussed and passed at any council meeting “for preserving the public peace, health, or safety” and if an explanation is made for why it is necessary.

Combs said she understands some landlords may be upset at having rent restrictions imposed on them by the city, even temporarily, with virtually no notice. But she said the alternative was more concerning to her.

“This is a risk I am willing to take for 45 days to keep families in their homes and off the streets,” Combs said.

Combs has emerged as one of the council’s most vocal advocates for more affordable housing and expanded homeless services.

Renters in Sonoma County are facing one of the tightest markets in memory, with rents up by 30 percent in the past three years and vacancy rates hovering around 3 percent. The climate has led to increasing reports of people living in substandard conditions and landlords raising rents beyond what existing tenants can bear.

But it’s not clear that the City Council is poised to act Tuesday on something as far-reaching as an immediate ban on rent increases, let alone instruct city staff to study such a move.

Dave Gouin, the city’s director of economic development and housing, is planning a 1:30 p.m. presentation in a study session prior to today’s special meeting that outlines an array of options the city can pursue, none of which involve rent control.

“It isn’t a primary option that we were going to summarize,” Gouin said.

The presentation will focus on ways to support the construction of more affordable housing and expanding how closely the city coordinates with service providers. The city could also decide to beef up the operations of the county’s homeless outreach team, Gouin said. This could include a 24/7 hotline for people facing homelessness, paying stipends to homeless people willing to help clear out encampments, and launching a “rapid rehousing” program that gives people at risk of becoming homeless vouchers for a place to stay while they sort out other options, Gouin said.

Combs stressed that the moratorium is only to “hit the pause button” for a short time until a full conversation can be undertaken about how to protect both tenants and landlords.

Urgency ordinances are rare but not unheard of. The city passed one in 2005 imposing a moratorium on new medicinal marijuana dispensaries and in 2011 to authorize the city manager to issue permits allowing Occupy protesters to camp on the lawn of City Hall.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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