Santa Rosa OKs protections for low-income renters after making concessions to landlords

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Santa Rosa has moved to prevent discrimination against low-income renters who rely on federal housing subsidies, forging ahead with modified protections after an outcry from landlords prompted the City Council last month to delay a decision.

The council voted 5-1 Tuesday to enact protections against obvious cases of discrimination on the basis of source of income, such as “NO SECTION 8” signs and similar policies enforced by property managers. The Santa Rosa Housing Authority administers the federal housing aid program on the local level and has the authority to issue subsidies to about 1,900 low-income households, including about 400 vouchers dedicated to homeless veterans.

The vote came about a month after the council delayed action on a previous version of the anti-discrimination policy, following complaints from landlords and their allies who raised concerns with the original proposed protections. Though the backlash didn’t stop the policy, the property managers’ efforts prompted a few revisions from the city.

Since the August delay, state lawmakers passed an anti-discrimination bill that Gov. Gavin Newsom has until Oct. 13 to sign. It would take effect Jan. 1 if he does, providing baseline protections similar but slightly different from the city policy, which won’t take effect for at least five weeks.

Revisions to Santa Rosa’s policy in the last month since then include occupancy limits and an exemption for owner-occupied single-family homes. Council members also agreed to explore a publicly funded risk pool to offset lost rent that landlords might suffer. Despite those concessions, council members appeared to generally favor the argument that lower-income people need affordable places to live over the contentions that the policy is burdensome for property managers.

“It is a choice to be a landlord. It is not a choice to need housing,” said Councilwoman Victoria Fleming. “Housing is a human right.”

The lone dissenter, Councilman John Sawyer, acknowledged that both he and his father were landlords and insisted that nobody on that side of the argument wanted to discriminate. He noted that the ban wouldn’t immediately stop property managers from avoiding renters receiving subsidies.

“There will be a possibility of landlords to work around this ordinance,” Sawyer said. “What I would like to happen is that they embrace the ordinance, that they embrace Section 8, that they do replace that fear with knowledge and that hyperbole starts to fade away.”

More than 20 members of the public took the opportunity to address the council, including renters and advocates for tenants who urged the council to protect vulnerable low- income residents struggling to find homes and facing repeated denials from local landlords.

“We cannot continue to normalize this discrimination,” said Marlina Martarano, a voucher holder and longtime renter who said she’s faced personal attacks for her advocacy for renter protections.

Landlords and their advocates, including some property managers who rent to voucher holders, insisted they did not want to discriminate and would abide by the law. They asked the council to consider incentive programs to encourage landlords to participate while acknowledging they expected Newsom to sign the bill on his desk no matter what Santa Rosa did.

“What this ordinance does, it mandates acceptance and participation in a program without, quite frankly, providing the resources that it really needs to be successful,” said Alex Khalfin, the regional vice president of public affairs for the California Apartment Association. “You heard from a couple of our members today who actually participate in the program. They have serious concerns, legitimate concerns.”

An unintended outcome concerning Keith Becker, the general manager of DeDe’s Rentals & Property Management on West Steele Lane, is the fact that both the state bill and the local policy will define voucher subsidies as income.

That will complicate matters for property managers like Becker who impose minimum income requirements on prospective tenants and fear they will have to end those policies to comply with the new anti- discrimination rules.

Becker added that his tenants included about a dozen people receiving housing assistance. He said he and other property managers likely would be seeking legal advice and expert opinions over the next few weeks to learn how best to proceed.

“This is a Gordian knot,” Becker said. “Right now, I don’t know how to untangle it.”

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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