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Santa Rosa has been seriously considering rent control for more than six months, but after a $75,000 report on the issue and one of the largest turnouts for a City Council meeting in recent memory Tuesday, city leaders seem as confounded as ever over how to move forward.

The seven-member council remains profoundly split on the subject, with three members strongly against rent stabilization, two strongly in favor, and two saying they’d need a lot more information before making a decision.

“I am not looking to go to full-on rent control. It’s just too much too soon,” Mayor John Sawyer said.

The owner of two rental units in Santa Rosa, Sawyer said he’s a “very fair landlord” who thinks the city should focus its energy on building more housing and improving the quality of what’s already here.

He said he would support a more “comprehensive inspection program” by the city, and the creation of a mediation process that gives people a place to take their grievances when rental issues arise, especially when properties are in poor condition.

“They should not be living in fear of retribution because they are living in unsafe conditions,” Sawyer said.

Several speakers sought to bolster their cases by referencing this week’s Press Democrat series on people living in squalid conditions, contending the news stories were either proof of the need for rent control or evidence that the city should focus on enforcing existing codes instead of adopting new restrictions.

But Julie Combs, perhaps the strongest advocate for rent stabilization on the council, pushed back against the real estate interests who packed the council chambers, many arguing that rent control is not the right solution to the housing crisis in Santa Rosa.

“Rent stabilization is not a Band-Aid, it’s a tourniquet,” Combs said in prepared remarks. “It’s a tourniquet to prevent our community from bleeding out its working families, young adults, seniors and our middle class. These are the lifeblood of our community.”

Their comments came at the end of a more than five-hour study session discussing a consultant’s report and the work of a three-member council subcommittee that met over the past three months to assess the options before the city, along with the pros and cons of programs operating elsewhere.

Dozens of real estate agents, property managers and landlords, many wearing Real Housing Solutions buttons, lambasted rent control as a foolhardy, unfair and ultimately ineffective way to create or preserve affordable housing.

Agent Paul Heck predicted that investors will take their money to other places, like Texas, if the city adds another layer of bureaucracy to the housing market. He noted that Santa Rosa has been blessed with a great location and good weather.

“One can only hope the politicians and the bureaucrats won’t find a way to screw it up,” Heck said.

Numerous supporters of rent control, many wearing signs shaped like yellow houses, urged the council to protect people from unfair and destabilizing rent increases. Housing advocates called it “baloney” that rent control reduces investment in units.

Jesse Strecker said he grew up in Santa Rosa and moved back recently to take care of his aging parents and return to school. But he said high rents make him and some of his friends question whether they have a future in the city.

“It’s going to be very tough for me to set roots here and set a life for myself here,” Strecker said.

City Manager Sean McGlynn said he can usually take the pulse of the council from such study sessions, but this case was an exception.

“I’m still hearing a wide range of opinions about where we go next,” McGlynn said.

He said city staff would need to digest the feedback from the council and requests for additional information and meet again with the subcommittee. Sawyer said he hoped the subcommittee — which is made up of Combs, Chris Coursey and Tom Schwedhelm — would “kind of boil some of this information down and bring it back to the council in some form for clear direction.”

How long that will take is unclear. A meeting planned for Feb. 23 was tabled because staff said a month wasn’t enough time to return with a follow-up.

In one sense, comments from council members made it seem that the majority were learning away from full rent control.

Coursey, who could prove the swing vote on the issue, said he felt it was the council’s responsibility do something to intervene to protect renters. However, he said he wasn’t sure a large-scale city program like ones in San Francisco or Berkeley was the answer, especially given that only a portion of the renters in the city would be covered.

“I can’t justify spending three- or four-million dollars per year to create a situation where some people who need rent control are getting it, a lot of people who don’t need those provisions are getting it, and a lot of people are left out of the equation,” Coursey said.

He said he was more interested in a “soft” rent stabilization option. This involves limited city staff because the rents of units aren’t tracked. Annual rent increases could be capped, such as at 5 percent, and landlords would have to abide by the limit and inform their tenants of the rule.

Enforcement could be through a nonprofit, and landlords who pay $1,000 to $2,000 to update units can get out from under the rent increase limits, though Coursey said he did not support that provision. The cost of such a program was estimated at just $27,900, compared to $3.7 million for full rent control, according to estimates by the city’s consultants, from the firm Management Partners.

But some of Coursey’s colleagues took strong issue with that higher estimate

Combs said she questioned the accuracy of that figure. Gary Wysocky called the figure “staggering.”

Wysocky also made his strongest statements to date in support of some type of government action, which makes some form of rent control more likely than less.

“I do believe government does exist to help those that need it the most and this is an area where there’s obviously a lot of people struggling and I will not shy away from giving the appropriate help,” he said.

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

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