Santa Rosa rent control beaten at ballot box

Santa Rosa voters soundly rejected the controversial rent control law passed by the City Council last summer following the most expensive political campaign in city history.

Final returns Tuesday night showed Measure C failing with 52.5 percent of the vote compared to 47.5 percent in support.

The results suggest residents want to see the city take more active steps to solve the affordable housing and homelessness crises instead of placing restrictions on existing rental housing in the city, said Rob Muelrath, the political consultant who ran the No on C campaign.

“It's a clear signal to the City Council that we need to address our homelessness problem and we need housing and we can't wait for it. We need it now,” Muelrath said.

But to supporters of Measure C, the takeaway was not that rent control is bad policy for Santa Rosa, but rather that regional and national real estate lobbies with a 5-to-1 financial advantage over local groups were able to buy the election.

“This is out-of-town interests protecting their profits,” said Terry Price, chairman of the Yes on C campaign.

Price called it “a scurrilous lie” to say that the City Council was not taking steps to address the affordable housing crisis in the city, citing the council's housing action plan and increased spending on housing.

Just last month the council agreed to spend $2.75 million to create additional affordable housing units in pending developments.

Price said the rent control piece of the city's plan was aimed at keeping people “from being kicked out of their homes and made homeless” while the city worked on its long-term housing strategy.

“The City Council was showing their compassion for our residents, and I think that this City Council is going to continue to do that,” Price said.

Gathered at a bar on Sebastopol Road Tuesday evening, supporters were glum as they watched early returns representing about 24,000 mail-in ballots roll in.

“I don't think anybody here is happy,” said Dan Mullen, the Novato-based political consultant who worked on the Yes on C campaign.

Price had hoped strong turnout at the polls on Election Day would overcome an initial 8-point deficit, but it didn't happen. The results narrowed only slightly as the night wore on.

Bill Rousseau, the Sonoma County Clerk-Recorder-Assessor, predicted a 40 percent voter turnout for the special election. About 76 percent of the 88,755 voters in the city were expected to vote by mail this year.

The results mean the rent control and just cause for evictions policies suspended by the referendum process are now effectively dead.

The City Council in late August passed a rent control law would have capped rent increases at 3 percent annually for about 11,100 apartments built in Santa Rosa before Feb. 1, 1995. The law also would have required landlords to give a reason for evicting tenants, and in some cases require them to pay relocation expenses.

Those were particularly offensive to many landlords, as they would have required them to pay up to three months of rent plus $1,500 to the people they were displacing without cause. Vice Mayor Jack Tibbett, a tepid supporter of Measure C, had suggested the fees were too steep.

Opposition to the law was swift. Paid signature gathers, some of whom were accused of misleading residents into signing petitions, were able to get the law suspended pending a citywide referendum vote.

The money quickly exceeded anything seen before in Santa Rosa politics. The flood of campaign cash passed the $1 million mark this week, shattering all previous records.

Total contributions to the campaign officially known as Citizens for Fair and Equitable Housing: Rental Housing Providers and Real Estate Professionals Opposing Measure C received $834,941 as of Monday.

Fair and Affordable Housing - Yes on C, meanwhile, received $169,498.

The massive influx of cash translated into voters receiving oversized fliers in their mailboxes almost weekly for the past two months, mostly from the No on C camp.

Many of them pointed out all the things rent control would not solve, like the homelessness problems or the shortage of affordable housing. They suggested taxpayers would be on the hook for the $1.4 million program, even though landlords an tenants were to split the program costs.

Signs for and against the measure appeared around the city, but their locations were oftentimes counter intuitive. Single family homes, which by state law cannot be covered by rent control, often proudly displayed Yes on C signs. But many of the apartment complexes housing the renters who would benefit from the rent restrictions contained only No on C signs.

That's because apartment complex owners or managers, who were uniformly against the law, control the common areas of such complexes, not allowing residents to install such signs but feeling free to do so themselves.

Jesse Whitt, a 38-year-old father and renter, said he supported Measure C because it would have kept his rent increases more manageable. Last year his landlord raised his rent by $250, he said.

But another reason he supported Measure C was because he was turned off by the hollow sloganeering of the No on C campaign, he said after voting at a downtown church.

He recalled driving to work and listening to the radio and looking up to see a large sign against the measure. “And the tagline is ‘Bad for Santa Rosa,'” Whitt said. “What does that even mean?”

He was also turned off by the claim in the ballot argument against C that it would make it harder for landlords to evict drug dealers and bad tenants.

“I was like, ‘No, that is not true!'” Whitt said. He said drug dealing is a crime and felt Measure C was unlikely to provide such people protection from eviction.

But Sandi Mazza, 55, who voted shortly after Whitt, opposed Measure C. She felt the city should focus more on producing housing than interfering with property owners' ability to charge market rates for their properties.

“I don't feel the measure did anything to generate any new affordable housing, which is what we need,” Mazza said.

She called rent control a “quick fix” that lacked a long-range plan to solve the housing shortage that she feels the city own land-use policies and high permit fees exacerbated over years.

“What is their long-range plan?” she asked.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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