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Healdsburg rent advisory polarizing

An uproar over soaring rents in Healdsburg, one of Sonoma County’s most desirable places to live, prompted a fast response by governmental standards, with the city getting a number of landlords to agree to “reasonable and fair” rent increases in the future.

Nearly two dozen landlords and property management companies, representing roughly a third of the city’s 1,860 rental units, last month pledged to not raise rents by more than 10 percent annually.

But the voluntary promise with no force of law behind it is seen by critics as toothless and probably too generous to landlords, allowing spikes in rent that surpass inflation and wage increases.

“It’s nonbinding. It’s pointless,” said Christine Webster, a disabled woman facing a 65 percent increase in rent for the one-bedroom duplex close to downtown that she’s lived in for the past decade.

Recent high-profile evictions and steep rent increases - including those for 21 Latino families in a low-income apartment complex where the new owner is fixing the dilapidated property and in some cases more than doubling the rents - are part of a “housing epidemic,” an emergency that calls for more decisive action, in Webster’s view.

“The situation is putting people out on the street with no support, no place to go in Sonoma County, no other place they can afford,” she said.

Escalating rents, which have increased about 30 percent in Sonoma County over three years, are a topic of concern not only in Healdsburg, but in other California and Bay Area communities, including Santa Rosa, where the City Council is looking at the possibility of instituting a form of rent control.

Only 13 cities in the state have rent control ordinances, most passed decades ago with the exception of Richmond’s.

In Healdsburg, the council instead persuaded landlords to sign on to a “rent stabilization advisory,” committing to: raise rents no more than 10 percent yearly; provide tenants at least 90 days’ notice prior to an increase; and, if extended repairs are done on a unit and it needs to be vacated, give the tenant the first right to return after repairs are made.

The council said it was using its bully pulpit and “moral authority” to get landlords to abide by the guidelines, which have been printed in the Healdsburg Tribune with the names of the property owners and managers who signed on. The text of the rent stabilization advisory will be included in utility bills, and city officials say they will work to ensure tenants understand their rights, have programs in place to mediate disputes with landlords, and can take advantage of emergency housing to avoid becoming homeless.

Defenders of the advisory say Healdsburg’s approach is preferable to rent control.

“Let’s put a little faith in people,” City Councilman Gary Plass said. “Let’s put it to the test.”

He said critics are too quick to judge Healdsburg’s handling of the issue.

“They’ve accused us of kicking the can down the road,” he said, referencing a comment made this week by Santa Rosa Vice Mayor Chris Coursey.

“What works in Healdsburg may not work in Santa Rosa,” Plass continued. “Before you tell us we’re not doing the right thing, let’s see if it works.”

Healdsburg has some of the highest-priced homes for sale in Sonoma County. Prices jumped 31 percent to a median $899,000 for the first six months of this year, compared to last year. But rents appear to be a different story.

Although there have been tenants who packed a recent City Council meeting and spoke of large rent increases - sometimes 30 to 40 percent and up - recent data show Healdsburg rents are less than surrounding communities and overall have increased very slightly.

The average rent of an apartment or multifamily unit in the second quarter of 2015 was highest in Petaluma, at $1,757, a 15.1 percent increase from the same period a year ago, according to CoStar, a San Diego company that tracks residential real estate with five units or more.

It was followed by Rohnert Park, $1,411, a 10.5 percent increase; Santa Rosa, $1,359, 9.2 percent; Cotati, $1,263, 6.8 percent; Sonoma, $1,159, 4.8 percent; Sebastopol, $955, 5.4 percent; Cloverdale, $935, 0.8 percent; Healdsburg, $933, 0.6 percent; and Windsor, $913, 5.5 percent.

But Robert Nuese, a general and electrical contractor who heads up the Healdsburg Fair Rent Committee, said his group is aware of more than 40 families in Healdsburg who have been evicted recently or will have to move because they can’t afford steep rent increases.

He said soaring rents represent “a crisis every citizen should be paying attention to and trying to address.”

Nuese said there are landlords who are perfectly decent people, provide a useful service, make a modest profit and “are just fine.”

But increasingly, he asserted, “there are landlords who don’t care if it’s rent or pork bellies - whatever it is they are dealing in, they want to maximize their profit. If it means people have to leave town, families are broken up and people are driven into dire poverty, it’s their problem, not the landlord’s problem.”

He said the 10 percent annual rent increase guideline is “still much too high a rate for working-class people to accommodate.”

Tenants such as Webster, a stroke survivor who says she is being priced out of Healdsburg, urged the City Council to pass an emergency rent moratorium, akin to a rent freeze. She also suggested the city should implement rent control that restricts increases to no more than 5 percent annually.

Under state law, single-family detached homes, condominiums and apartments built after Feb. 1, 1995, are exempt from rent control.

Critics of rent control say it causes landlords to stop investing in their properties, makes rents in non-rent-controlled units increase even faster, and is unfair to landlords who have kept the rents low.

In Webster’s case, the rent for her one-bedroom duplex just went from $850 per month to $1,100.

She said she is facing another hike to $1,400 in January and has no idea how she could pay it.

A former teacher, she said she makes only $1,000 a month, mostly from disability payments.

She also is a recipient of Section 8 federal housing aid, so she was paying $124 per month out of pocket, before it jumped to $238 this month with her rent increase.

She said Section 8 won’t cover any more of the rent increase and she will be forced out in January when it is scheduled to go to $1,400.

“There is no place for me to go in Healdsburg, no low-income housing. There is no availability,” she said.

Victor Trentadue, the owner of her duplex, and a well-known winery in the family name, said the rent was raised only $50 on Webster over 10 years when his late parents owned it.

After they died, the property passed to a trust in which he and his sisters are beneficiaries.

“We’re trying to raise it to be a little more in line with what’s in our area,” he said of the rent increase for Webster’s duplex and four other tenants he has who are also facing steep increases.

“People are under the impression we have tons of money,” he said, adding that he and his siblings have inheritance taxes, insurance and other bills to pay.

“We struggle like everybody else,” he said.

While he said they may be better off than some people, “I have a 14-year-old pickup with close to 350,000 miles on it. For some reason, people have the impression we are loaded.”

Mayor Shaun McCaffery said Webster is a special case, in that the trustee who controls the property appears to have a fiduciary duty to maximize the value of the trust.

McCaffery does not agree that Healdsburg faces a housing “crisis,” as some have described it, but says the situation is “not sustainable.”

“The demand is outstripping supply,” he said, and that is why the council is working on asking voters to loosen up the city’s growth management ordinance, which restricts the construction of new market-rate dwellings to an average of 30 per year.

McCaffery said even though he would be willing to entertain the idea of rent control, there isn’t enough support for it on the rest of the council.

In the meantime, he thinks the rent advisory is better than nothing.

“Some landlords out there don’t know what appropriate behavior is,” he said, adding that the guidelines provide a benchmark for what is fair.

Jock McNeil of Alliance Property Management, one of the groups that signed the pledge, acknowledged that landlords don’t want to have rent control imposed on them.

“Owners wanted to participate in the process and be part of the solution rather than perceived as part of the problem,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @clarkmas.

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