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Santa Rosa City Council backs off proposal to withdraw from county eviction protections

Facing staunch public opposition to removing the city from Sonoma County’s stringent pandemic-era eviction protections, the Santa Rosa City Council voted Tuesday night to maintain the county rules until at least the end of August.

As originally proposed, the ordinance would have returned Santa Rosa July 1 to operating under state law that shields tenants from eviction for unpaid rent but leaves 16 other causes for evictions.

Before the decision, renter advocates urged the council to reconsider the move, which they said could lead to a wave of eviction notices from landlords seeking excuses to boot tenants who haven’t been paying rent during the pandemic.

Real estate interests and landlords large and small argued the restrictions prevent them from evicting tenants who are destroying properties. Council members supportive of the proposal worried failing to act would deplete the city’s already depleted housing stock as frustrated landlords sell off rental properties.

Five council members had appeared supportive of removing Santa Rosa from the county’s protections at an April 6 meeting.

The council needed five votes to pass the measure, but council member Eddie Alvarez changed his position. Alvarez had heard from renters under pressure of losing their homes in the interim and worried about the city’s high rate of homelessness, he said.

“I do not feel comfortable adding more homelessness to an issue that we do not have a handle on,” he said.

After it became clear that the ordinance would fail, the council instead voted 4-3 to return to the issue in late August. Some council members said they’d consider a narrower focus on creating a path for landlords to evict renters damaging their properties.

Council members also focused on a county fund for rental assistance they said has been going out too slowly. The county has distributed more than $2.6 million of the fund so far, leaving $28.6 million that has yet to be distributed to renters and landlords.

The proposal to remove the city from the county’s eviction protections sparked scathing public comment from many speakers, who accused elected officials of turning a blind eye to the plight of low-income residents reeling from the pandemic’s economic impacts.

“How dare you threaten the roofs over their heads at the same time,” resident Allegra Wilson said.

One member of the council also questioned her colleagues’ sympathies on the issue. “I know that the people who have our ears tend to be landlords more than tenants,” council member Victoria Fleming said as she called for the council to practice “empathy” on housing issues.

The county passed its stringent protections, which prevent most evictions barring health and safety threats or an owner removing a property from the rental market, in February. The Board of Supervisors made the decision after seeing county court data indicating that evictions increased once stricter statewide protections expired in September 2020 and the law with 16 eviction causes went into place.

Opposition to the Santa Rosa City Council’s proposal to loosen eviction protections came from labor groups like the North Bay Labor Council, housing groups including the Sonoma County Tenants Union, progressive political organizations and the environmental group 350 Sonoma.

Tenant advocates argued that landlords were already seeking evictions as they eyed the end of pandemic-era protections.

The Bay Area Regional Health Inequities Initiative, a coalition of the region’s public health departments — including Sonoma County’s — also sent a letter opposing the relaxation of eviction prohibitions.

The organization called the eviction protections a racial equity issue because of higher rates of both COVID-19 infection and housing instability among minority populations.

“Failure to protect the housing stability of our communities today will exacerbate racial inequities in health and wealth,” the group wrote, “setting us back a generation in our work to overcome our region’s deep legacy of inequitable policy choices.”

Those comments were echoed in a June 6 email from Naomi Fuchs, the CEO of Santa Rosa Community Health. The CEO of Providence Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital also asked the City Council to reject the proposal.

But one comment writer named Michael Cook said the regulations had stopped him from purchasing a single family dwelling in west Santa Rosa to offer as a rental because he worried he could get a renter who would not pay their rent. “That right there, is why I will not be purchasing a rental unit, and why there won't be another rental unit on the market for our residents,” he wrote.

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88.

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