Santa Rosa City Council votes in favor of rent control, curbs on evictions

After getting an earful from passionate supporters and detractors of rent control Tuesday night, the Santa Rosa City Council ordered city staff members to bring back a rent control ordinance that caps rent increases for older apartments at 3 percent annually and protects renters from unfair evictions.

The move, which likely will face a challenge at the ballot box, came late Tuesday after more than four hours of public testimony and in the wake of speculation that the council has been learning toward implementing the controversial policy for months.

As expected, the council split 4-3 on the issue. The majority did not have the five votes necessarily to impose an immediate moratorium on rents, which some felt was needed to prevent short-term rent hikes before the new law took effect. The council debate on that issue continued past press time.

“If this is a crisis, let's treat it like a crisis,” said Councilman Chris Coursey, who endorsed moving forward with the ordinance. “Let's use all the tools that we have available to us.”

Coursey noted that the city is taking numerous other measures to address the housing crisis, and rent control was just one. He predicted it will be neither as effective as some would like nor as onerous as many feared.

Mayor John Sawyer, however, said he had “grave concerns” that the policy, if approved later by the city, would fail.

“I don't think it's a solution to our housing problem,” said Sawyer, one of the three council members who opposed the action. “I think this is creating a problem in the effort to trying to solve another one.”

He said he took some responsibility for the city not building enough housing over the years, but said “I never thought I would use rent control and Santa Rosa in the same sentence.”

The split vote followed one of the largest turnouts to a council meeting in recent memory. The overflow crowd spilled out into the courtyard in front of the chambers, where Santa Rosa Junior College Students and members of the Service Employees International Union and the North Bay Organizing Project gave speeches, played instruments and chanted slogans like “Roll Back the Rents!” to enthusiastic applause.

“We want people who work in Santa Rosa to be able to live in Santa Rosa!” said Sybil Day, vice president of the North Bay Organizing Project.

Attendees of the rally carried signs that read “I rent and I vote,” “Right to a roof” and “Housing is a human right.”

The council began considering the issue about 4:40 p.m. Sawyer urged people to be respectful, given the controversial and passionate nature of the issue.

“What we're talking about this evening will touch people's livelihoods, their homes and their families, and the quality of life, their futures, here in the city of Santa Rosa on a number of levels,” Sawyer said.

From there, more than 75 people requested to speak on the issue. The split between supporters and opponents was fairly even.

Dozens of supporters regaled the council with stories about how their lives have been upended by soaring rental rates.

Annie Mallen chastised the council for not acting earlier, saying that if it had, she wouldn't currently be homeless. She said she now lives in the organized homeless encampment in Roseland. She sometimes has to urinate in a cup at night, worrying if people around her can hear her, she said.

“I'm almost 62, and it's humiliating,” Mallen said. She added that she is “scared all the time” and worries whether she's ever going to make it back into safe housing.

Numerous SRJC students stressed that just trying to make enough money to live in the city was jeopardizing their ability to get a good education. Several noted that there once were dormitories on campus.

That prompted attorney Kevin Konicek to suggest that if a lack of dormitories was the problem, the city should work with the college to build some instead of passing an ordinance he felt was misguided.

He noted that the current council has worked well together and agreed on controversial issues, such as the $10 million reunification of Old Courthouse Square. He noted rent control is used in few cities in the state, making it a “very unusual policy.”

“Don't break this pattern of consensus of getting things done,” Konicek said. “Please don't do this. This is a waste of your time. It is a waste of the city's time.”

Depending on what types of housing is included, the city has estimated that as many as 13,386 units could be subject to rent control. There are nearly 70,000 total units of housing in the city. Numerous landlords decried placing the burden for fixing the housing crunch on a small portion of the landlord community.

After public commentary, the council took a break and returned to debating various elements of the ordinance.

Councilwoman Julie Combs, largely in negotiations with three other supportive council members, proposed a “limited rent control” that capped rents at 3 percent per year, which would be restricted by state law to apartments built before 1995.

She added that the law would exempt duplexes and triplexes if a property owner or family member lived in one of the units. She also proposed making the law retroactive to Jan 1.

Also endorsed by the majority was a just-cause eviction policy that would cover all rental properties in the city. That ordinance would allow landlords to evict renters for a number of reasons, including a “habitual” nonpayment of rent, breach of contract, creating a nuisance, to allow temporary removal of residents for capital improvements, or to withdraw the apartment from the market.

Combs was joined by Coursey, Erin Carlstrom and Gary Wysocky in supporting the two ordinances. The trio voting in opposition included Sawyer, Ernesto Olivares and Tom Schwedhelm.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or

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