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The Santa Rosa City Council signaled Tuesday that is it leaning toward imposing rent control as part of a broader strategy to address the city’s housing crisis, setting up a potentially bruising and divisive battle over whether the city ought to intervene and regulate a white-hot rental market.

After a four-hour study session during which the vast majority of speakers assailed rent control as a misguided and counterproductive public policy, a slim majority of the council countered that it struck them as the only true to way to protect a vulnerable segment of the community from sharply escalating rents.

“I’m hearing every day about families losing their homes because of skyrocketing rents,” said Councilwoman Julie Combs, one of the council’s staunchest advocates for rent control. “And I think I have a responsibility to do all I can to help working families in our community stay in their homes.”

No votes were taken and no official decisions were made by the council. But comments by four of the seven council members suggested they wanted City Manager Sean McGlynn to continue exploring a rent control ordinance as one of its options.

Mayor John Sawyer and council members Ernesto Olivares and Tom Schwedhelm strongly opposed the idea. Sawyer called the policy a “distraction” from what he viewed as a far better approach of focusing instead on boosting the supply of housing the city.

“I do believe that our only true solution is in inventory,” Sawyer said, calling rent control a “Band-Aid” on the problem instead of a solution.

Councilwoman Erin Carlstrom took issue with that characterization, noting that rent control may very well allow single mothers like her and seniors from being displaced from their homes.

“If doing something to help that not happen is Band-Aid, I simply can’t accept that,” Carlstrom said. “We spent $800,000 on a fish fountain. We can spend some money to help renters in Santa Rosa.”

She was referring to the council’s decision earlier this year to complete the work, including bathrooms, needed to restore operation of the water feature in the Prince Greenway Park.

In addition to Combs and Carlstrom, Vice Mayor Chris Coursey and Councilman Gary Wysocky voiced qualified support for the idea. Wysocky said he would want any ordinance to be very sensitive to landlords with smaller apartments, such as those with fewer than four units.

Of the supporters, Coursey seemed to be the least certain that rent control was the right path for the city.

“I don’t think rent control is the answer. I think it might be part of an answer, but I haven’t even gotten there yet,” Coursey said.

His concern was that the solutions being proposed by the many of the landlords and real estate managers who turned out for the meeting didn’t seem like solutions at all. A voluntary approach to rent control, as recently adopted by Healdsburg, falls far short, he said.

“Good luck to Healdsburg, but that’s just kicking the can down the road, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

He also wasn’t interested in the calls by several in the real estate industry to form a task force to work with landlords to come up with mutually agreeable solutions. Jonathan Coe, president of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce, and Keith Becker, president of the DeDe’s Rentals, one of the largest property rental management firms in the county, both urged the council to form such a body.

“This is the task force, folks,” Coursey said, pointing to the seven members on the council. “We’re putting together a list of things that I hope will have an impact, and I think will.”

He and other council members stressed that the council does plan to find ways to encourage the construction of additional housing, pointing to an in-depth study session planned on that issue next month.

He questioned the fundamental argument of those who suggest that more housing will solve the problem, noting that rents have risen 20 percent in two years and the city can’t build enough housing to offset such surges.

Combs made a similar point, noting that if the city allows rents to continue to rise, more people will be displaced and the burden on the city to build more affordable housing will only increase.

The comments by the council followed an onslaught of opposition to the idea of rent control at the meeting. The speakers, many of them turned out by real estate groups, outnumbered rent-control supporters 10 to 1.

They argued that rent control will scare off developers, cause landlords to stop investing in their properties, and make rents in non-rent-controlled units increase even faster.

They also noted that any city action would only apply only to about 20 percent of the 67,000 housing units in the city, which they argued would be unfair. Under state law, single-family detached homes, condominiums and apartments built after Feb. 1, 1995, would be exempt from any rent control.

Many also pointed to the fact that just 13 of the state’s 482 cities have rent-control ordinances as evidence that the policy is flawed. Richmond, the most recent addition to that list, served for some speakers as further evidence that rent control wasn’t the right policy for Santa Rosa.

“This is the first time I’ve ever heard that Santa Rosa needs to look a little more like Richmond,” said Brian Ling, executive director of the Sonoma County Alliance, the business coalition.

Real estate interests pointed to a study by Sonoma State Professor Robert Eyler, who concluded rent control would be a net drain on the local economy, spurring less spending on rentals, a decline in property tax revenue and transferring about $11 million a year from landlords into the hands of tenants. The study was paid for by the North Bay Association of Realtors

Carlstrom, who indicated her support of rent control before any members of the public spoke, said she was less interested in economic studies and more in the people, like her, affected by soaring rents.

“I see this as an issue of conscience for our community and I want to see us doing everything we can to impact the cost of living in Santa Rosa,” she said.

McGlynn said the work needed to study the issue further would be substantial and would require the city to hire an outside expert. He said he would return to the council with a contract for that work in the near future.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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