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Santa Rosa march protests housing crunch

Hundreds of tenants, workers and supporters took to the streets Wednesday to demand rent control and more stringent eviction policies in Sonoma County, an area grappling with a tight rental market and rising housing costs.

About a dozen Aztec dancers and a drummer led the 6 p.m. march from the lot of the Dollar Tree store in the Roseland neighborhood to Santa Rosa City Hall more than a mile away. Drivers honked in support as protesters made their way down Sebastopol Road, carrying signs in English and Spanish that read: “Please let us work here, live here” and “No more rent increases.” They also chanted “El derecho al techo - Right to a roof” and “When housing is under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back.”

Many of them offered personal stories about difficulties finding and securing housing in the county, which protesters described as a “playground for the rich.”

“It’s not our job to fix this problem. It’s the city government’s job,” said Jennifer Schallert, a Santa Rosa native who organized an online petition urging city officials to enact rent control.

A single mother of two who does marketing for a local technology company, Schallert said she started searching for an apartment after her landlord told her in November her rent would increase from $1,600 to $1,800. The two-bedroom apartment is now listed at $2,100, she said. Unable to afford the rent increase, she and her children moved into her mother’s home.

“At that rate an individual has to be making $35 an hour,” said Schallert, 34.

She continued to look for her own place, spending $500 on numerous rental application fees. But it was to no avail, as only two landlords bothered to review her credit.

Schallert said she started the online petition in May after a real estate agent decided to hike the rent for a two-bedroom home she had applied for from $2,600 to $3,500. She has collected nearly 2,700 signatures.

“I’m here because I’d like the City Council to take action,” she said during the march.

People came from throughout the county with similar reasons - to put pressure on local officials. Their chants could be heard from blocks away as they made their way closer to City Hall.

“We’re trying to unite the different regions of the county who are all facing the same crisis,” said Davin Cardenas, lead organizer with the North Bay Organizing Project, which organized the march.

Cardenas said tenants currently have no protection from rent increases or unjust evictions. Some families have been forced out of their homes after complaining about poor housing conditions, while others have been pushed out after buildings were sold and remodeled to attract tenants with deeper pockets, similar to what recently happened at a low-income apartment complex in Healdsburg, Cardenas said.

“Their struggle is my struggle,” said Hernan Zaragoza, a Santa Rosa Junior College student who shares a small Rohnert Park two-bedroom apartment with seven relatives. His family can’t afford a larger unit, he said.

He said some students on his college campus have it worse. Some have to juggle two jobs to pay their rent, while others are homeless.

“They sleep in their cars. That’s just crazy to me,” said Zaragoza, 19, who carried a large sign with the image of the Peanuts gang at Wednesday’s march. The sign read “The Right to a Roof” in Spanish.

Santa Rosa Councilwoman Julie Combs, who supports tighter rent regulations, said she understood protesters’ frustrations, particularly in the city where the vacancy rate is just over 1 percent.

“That’s effectively a no-vacancy sign. That means when somebody’s rent comes up, they can’t easily move,” she said before the march.

The city is planning to do an intense study over the next several months on affordable housing and explore various potential solutions, including a rent control ordinance, boosting funding for affordable housing projects and streamlining the permitting process.

Nearly half of the city’s residents rent, Combs said. Of them, 27 percent spend more than half of their income on rent, she said.

“I agree with the marchers. We need some relief now so that we have our employees live here,” she said.

However, it’s not just a problem for Santa Rosa, Combs said.

“This is a problem for the whole region,” she said.

Zaragoza agreed.

“It’s up to the community. We can change it,” Zaragoza said about finding affordable-housing solutions. “Hope is still alive.”

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @eloisanews.

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