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.