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Santa Rosa City Council delays adding renter protections amid coronavirus crisis

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Santa Rosa is in no rush to layer more tenant protections atop existing county and state rules meant to prevent renters from being kicked out of their homes during the coronavirus crisis.

The City Council met by conference call Tuesday, its first session since Sonoma County’s health officer told residents to stay home as much as possible to prevent the spread of the coronavirus that has infected more than 434,000 people nationwide and led to the deaths of more than 14,000.

Council members heard a comprehensive presentation on existing state and county rental protections by City Attorney Sue Gallagher. Those provisions include a unanimous vote by the California Judicial Council, the policymaking body for state courts, that on Tuesday suspended all new eviction proceedings.

But though council members noted holes in existing protections, such as the lack of restrictions on evicting commercial tenants in Sonoma County, they were reluctant to act soon on any new rules affecting the local rental market.

Some council members said Santa Rosa needed to do more for tenants, legions of whom have lost jobs or closed shops and are unable to make rent. Councilman Jack Tibbetts went the furthest, suggesting citywide protections for business tenants, a safeguard the county’s rules lack.

“I just want to make sure that when this is all over — same as we don’t have mass evictions of residential tenants — Fourth Street doesn’t look like a partial ghost town,” Tibbetts said, referring to business-heavy downtown blocks that are largely closed amid the pandemic.

Tibbetts also urged the council to consider a rental assistance fund that would favor residential renters. But his colleagues didn’t clamber on board to advance the proposal, with most saying it was too early for Santa Rosa to add its own set of rental rules to an already complex set of emergency government regulations.

“Like a number of council members have said before me, before we take action, we need to get to the point where we have a clearer understanding of how this is playing out and where the holes are,” said Vice Mayor Victoria Fleming, instead of “trying to guess where the problems are.”

“I think we all have an idea of where some of the problems are, but things are just moving too quickly for me to feel like it’s the time to be writing more rules,” Fleming added.

Santa Rosa has a checkered history adding protections for city renters, who, like many Bay Area tenants, need to come up with bigger monthly checks than most Americans to put roofs over their heads.

Tuesday’s consensus to stand pat followed a deadlocked 3-3 council vote in January that killed a proposed citywide rental inspection program, with Tibbetts absent due to the demands of his job as executive director of the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Sonoma County.

The city in September did vote to adopt protections for low-income renters against obvious cases of discrimination after postponing their decision to accommodate concerns raised by local landlords and real estate agents.

A bill signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last year succeeded in enacting rent control statewide following a failed statewide referendum in 2018. The Santa Rosa City Council in 2016 passed rent control policies which city voters later rejected, siding with landlords and real estate interests opposing new government rules.

Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick has said his deputies won’t enforce writs of eviction as long as the county is under a shelter-in-place order.

Gallagher, the city attorney, said it’s her understanding the state judicial council’s decision prevents new evictions of commercial tenants, though that isn’t the case for orders promulgated by Newsom and the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.

“As complicated as this already is, adding an additional city ordinance could increase that confusion,” Gallagher said. “On the other hand, if it’s substituted out for the county ordinance, maybe you would gain some clarifications that way.”

Mayor Tom Schwedhelm voiced support for Tibbetts’ proposed fund for rental assistance but called it “premature” given the city’s budget is bracing for a powerful blow from the virus’s impact on sales tax revenue. With most businesses closed to the public, Santa Rosa is expecting to receive $5.5 million less in sales and hotel tax revenue from March to May, and the city is still learning about how it might receive money from the $2 trillion federal stimulus package.

“I think it would be wonderful to be able to do that,” Schwedhelm said of a rental assistance fund. “I just don’t think we can do that without additional information.”

Staff Writer Will Schmitt can be reached at will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com or at 521.5207.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

Track cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

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