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Dennis McGovern was stunned when he and 16 neighbors received eviction notices this month following the sale of their west Santa Rosa apartments.

“When we got the notices, we were so confused,” said McGovern, who has lived in his apartment for three years with his cocker spaniel Duke. “The new owners, when they purchased the buildings, they said nothing would change and that we would be allowed to stay. Then boom, we get eviction notices. It doesn’t make sense. We’re all good tenants — where are we going to be able to find another place that we can afford?”

The cluster of seven apartments on a secluded side street off Todd Road has become the latest focal point in a legal — and increasingly political ­— battle over the rights of tenants and landlords in Sonoma County’s tight housing market.

A Sonoma County supervisor who recently intervened in a dispute between the Todd Road tenants and their landlord is now vowing to press for more tenant protections at the county level.

Tenants rights’ attorneys, meanwhile, are ratcheting up their fight against landlords who evict tenants without a reason. The practice, which is legal in Sonoma County, has spiked over the past year, they say.

Attorneys are vying to convince landlords in three high-profile eviction cases — in Santa Rosa, Petaluma and Sonoma — to give residents more time in their apartments while they search for a new place to live. Apartments are difficult to find in Sonoma County, where more than 98 percent of the rental units are occupied at any given time, according to county and real estate industry reports.

“Thirty or 60 days is not nearly enough time to locate to a new rental with the current 1 percent vacancy rates,” said Ronit Rubinoff, executive director of Sonoma County Legal Aid, a nonprofit agency that assists tenants facing eviction. “What we are seeing is unprecedented. We are witnessing rapid, widespread displacement of working-class and low-income people from this community.”

Rubinoff recently slowed the eviction of a group of Petaluma tenants, winning them an additional 60 days in their apartments. She has done the same for a group of residents in Sonoma who are being evicted by the Ledson family, which owns Ledson Winery in Kenwood, and she is now seeking to help the Todd Road residents. In some cases, eviction notices are not valid, she argues.

When McGovern and his neighbors were served eviction notices on April 5, he first sought help from Supervisor Efren Carrillo, whose district includes the Todd Road properties.

“I decided to try and do something to stand up for us,” said McGovern, 65, a drug and alcohol treatment counselor. “I’m worried about where I’m going to go, sure, but also I’m concerned about my neighbors. What’s going to happen to them?”

In a rare move, Carrillo quickly convened a meeting with the tenants and Rubinoff.

Carrillo acknowledged that he does not typically get involved in eviction proceedings, especially this early in the process, but he said the Board of Supervisors must do more to stem the loss of housing units to large investors seeking to purchase properties, then evict the tenants and raise rents.

“These people here reflect our community — they are seniors, they’re students, they’re working-class people trying to make a living,” Carrillo said after meeting with the Todd Road tenants. “We have been so focused on building more units, but we need to seriously look at what we as elected officials can do to help create stability for renters. We have to protect renters from being taken advantage of. We need to start investigating policies that can help keep people in their homes.”

Carrillo spent two hours listening to the Todd Road renters explain their situation. Most pay $1,500 in rent for two-bedroom units, and all were given notices ordering them out by the beginning of June. Claire Caruso, who has lived in her home for 22 years, was served her eviction notice a month earlier than the rest. She must be out by the end of this month.

“You don’t understand. This is my life. I’m losing my neighbors, I’m losing my friends, I’m losing my big beautiful garden,” said Caruso, 61, who moved to her apartment in 1994. “Everything is gone all at once.”

Until now, supervisors have focused their efforts to address the county’s housing shortage on boosting the supply of units, especially for low- and moderate- income residents.

But Carrillo, the board chairman whose final term ends in December, said he will press for tenant protections this year. He did not rule out enacting rent control or creating stricter rules that would require landlords to give tenants a good cause for eviction.

“We need to look at all those options,” Carrillo said. “I’m hearing about more and more evictions every day. I believe it is our responsibility to do something.”

Carrillo’s remarks come two weeks before the Santa Rosa City Council is expected to take up rent control and just-cause eviction policies. Across the county, rising rents and high-profile evictions have escalated the debate among elected officials over the need for such policies.

“So many rental properties languished during the recession. Now, without rent stabilization or just-cause eviction policies, investors are seeing these properties as prime real estate. People are snapping them up, evicting low-income families, flipping them, then jacking up the rents,” Rubinoff said.

Legal Aid’s two volunteer attorneys cannot keep up on their current caseload of open eviction-related cases, which stands at about 600 per year, she said. Most are concentrated in Santa Rosa.

Rubinoff said she was successful in helping some tenants get additional time in their apartments on Walnut Street in Petaluma.

The building’s owner, Milad Sabetimani, did not return multiple calls seeking comment. A woman who identified herself as Ari Sabetimani, the mother of the owner, defended the evictions.

“The units need a lot of remodeling,” she said. “I’m not doing anything wrong. I gave them notice. Owning property is not a crime.”

Sabetimani said tenants in two of the eight units are allowed to stay. Families in two other units were given an additional 60 days to find a place, according Michael Miller, an attorney with the Santa Rosa-based firm Perry Johnson Anderson Miller & Moskowitz LLP. Miller is representing tenants in four of the eight units and is expected to file a lawsuit later this month against the current and former owners alleging substandard housing conditions that went ignored, as well as retaliatory and discriminatory eviction practices.

Rubinoff is seeking to delay the eviction of about two dozen tenants who live in a small housing development on West Spain Street near the intersection of West Napa Street in Sonoma. The properties, totaling 10 units, are owned by the Ledson family.

Steve Ledson, owner of Ledson Winery in Sonoma Valley, said he is evicting the tenants to tear down the apartments. He plans to construct 18 new units, with 20 percent set aside as affordable units.

“These apartments were built during the late 1950s and early 1960s — they’re really old,” Ledson said. “Once we get done, we’re going to have nicer, more energy-efficient rental units on the market, and there are going to be more of them.”

Rubinoff criticized Ledson, arguing that he is taking 10 affordable units off the current market and proposing to replace them with three or four affordable units.

Rubinoff also is working with the Todd Road tenants seeking more time in their units. The new owners, Al and Dina Lopez, who own Aldina Vineyard in Santa Rosa, declined to comment, but the eviction notices state the units need to be cleared out for extensive remodeling. It is unclear when the purchase was completed, but tenants said they were notified early this year by new property managers that the units were sold.

The sale of the properties — three freestanding units, two converted studios and two duplexes, has not yet been recorded, according to Sonoma County property records. Monica Lopez, one of the new property managers, confirmed that the properties have changed hands.

Lopez is listed in state business filings as the primary agent associated with the company that purchased the properties, a limited liability company called Aldina Properties. She declined to elaborate on the purchase or the impending evictions.

In the recent meeting with Carrillo and Rubinoff, tenants said their apartment search so far has been fruitless.

“I hope we can get more time,” said Rosa Gonzales, another Todd Road tenant who was served a 60-day notice. “I don’t want to have to live in my car.”

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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