Novel Healdsburg program would improve properties while keeping rents down

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With Healdsburg officials reminded by activists at nearly every meeting about the high cost of housing, the City Council is considering a novel program that would loan landlords money for critical repairs to their properties as long as they didn’t exorbitantly raise rents.

“It’s a great first effort,” Mayor Tom Chambers said of the rental unit rehabilitation program that would offer landlords as much as $3,500 per unit for repairs, up to a maximum of three units per property owner, and forgive the debt if they don’t raise the rent more than 3 percent annually over three years.

“I like the concept,” Councilwoman Brigitte Manselle said, adding, “I want to make sure we’re actually helping people who can’t afford to stay here.”

City Manager David Mickaelian said the idea is similar to a program begun a few years ago in which business owners were given grants to improve their building facades. That program relied on state redevelopment funds from programs that have since been dissolved.

But Mickaelian believes the city can find the money for the rental unit rehabilitation program, although it will have to wait until after the annual budget review in the spring and for details to be refined.

“It’s one tool in the toolbox we’re looking at,” he said of the city’s effort to address housing affordability.

An uproar over soaring rents in Healdsburg erupted last summer following a number of high-profile evictions and steep rent increases, including for 21 Latino families in a low-income apartment complex where the new owner was fixing the dilapidated property and in some cases more than doubling the rents.

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.

In Healdsburg, there is no inclination by the City Council to impose rent-control measures, but the city last year did convince nearly two dozen landlords and property management companies, representing roughly one-third of the city’s 1,860 rental units, to pledge not to raise rents by more than 10 percent annually.

It did little to assuage critics, who said it was essentially toothless and allowed rent increases that are too high.

High housing costs and a lack of housing options top the list of community issues.

A city-commissioned poll conducted last month found that more than seven in 10 Healdsburg residents are worried about the lack of housing for working families.

The pilot program discussed by the council Tuesday would offer financial assistance to property owners to correct potential health and safety hazards and extend the useful life of their rentals. It would cover things like electrical upgrades, and repair or replacement of hot water heaters, furnaces, roofs and plumbing, for example.

Councilman Gary Plass said the City Council is very interested in improving the city’s aging housing stock, adding, “I’m excited about this.”

Property owners who participate would have to show annual rents have not been substantially increased over the past three years and also agree to limit rent increases close to the rate of inflation, or the Bay Area Consumer Price Index.

In an attempt to get a better picture of the rental market and housing needs, the city recently surveyed both tenants and landlords to determine average rents and typical increases.

The city sent out questionnaires to the occupants and owners of 372 multifamily rental units and got a response rate of 38 percent. But the survey was criticized by housing advocates who said it was skewed because landlords who have imposed high rent increases may have chosen not to participate, and tenants who have been displaced by high rents have left Healdsburg.

“It creates a pleasantly rosy, false picture,” said Robert Nuese, who heads up the Healdsburg Fair Rent Committee.

The survey showed average rents ranging from $884 per month for a studio to $1,730 per month for a three-bedroom unit.

The majority of tenants who responded live in a two-bedroom dwelling and pay an average of $1,321 a month. Most tenants said their rent had been increased once or twice in the past three years.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that the loan to property owners to upgrade their rentals would be forgiven after three years if they keep their rents low.

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

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