Santa Rosa enacts rent control, capping increases on 11,000 units

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Santa Rosa made its rent control law official Tuesday, enacting a program aimed at protecting tenants in thousands of older apartments from rent increases of more than 3 percent a year.

It also got its strongest signal yet that apartment owners aren’t going to watch their profits capped without a fight.

As it did earlier this month, the City Council voted 4-2 Tuesday in favor of an ordinance that will now go into effect Sept. 30. A companion law to protect tenants from unjust evictions goes into effect Sept. 16.

Council members praised newly presented details of the program.

City staff said it would require about four and half employees to implement and cost about $1.2 million to run annually. When spread out over the 11,076 apartments in the city expected to be affected by the law, the per unit cost will be $113 per year.

When split between the landlord and the tenant, which the law allows, that comes to $4.70 per month, which Councilwoman Julie Combs said she thought was a deal.

“For the security and stability of our community, for the assurance of having a place to live, and for not being evicted for no cause, I consider this a cost-effective program,” she said.

In addition to Combs, supporters in the majority included Chris Coursey, Gary Wysocky and Erin Carlstrom. Vice Mayor Tom Schwedhelm and Ernesto Olivares voted against the ordinance while Mayor John Sawyer, a landlord, recused himself from the vote.

The council authorized $818,000 for the first nine months of the program, which will be reimbursed by the fees.

Under state law, single-family homes, duplexes and apartments built after February 1, 1995 are exempt from local rent control laws. Santa Rosa’s law also exempts owner-occupied triplexes.

Rents for covered units will be rolled back to Jan. 1, 2016, and capped at 3 percent a year thereafter, unless the landlord can demonstrate that they are entitled to steeper increases because they’re making significant capital improvements to the units.

In such cases, if tenants are forced to live elsewhere for more than 9 months during the upgrades, they are entitled to three months of rent plus $1,500 in moving expenses.

An attorney for the California Apartment Association, called the city’s program “blatantly illegal.” In a letter to the city Monday, association attorney Stephen Pahl said the city had no right to roll back rents to a date before rent control was enacted. He contended that landlords who raised rents between January 1 and June 18 — the date when a moratorium went into effect — did so legally.

He urged the city to remove the rollback provision to avoid “legal action in the future as landlords attempt to obtain a fair rate of return, embroiling the city in multiple lawsuits.”

There was no discussion of removing the rollback provision Tuesday.

Interim City Attorney Teresa Stricker responded with a letter noting that affected landlords will be able to increase rents by at least 3 percent on Jan. 1 2017, and she said it was “unlikely” that many landlords would sue over the issue.

“The Santa Rosa Council has introduced an ordinance that balances the needs of its tenant residents with the needs of property owners who provide rental housing,” Striker wrote. “The proposed ordinance provides opportunities for landlords to receive rent adjustments above that allowed by right by a straightforward process that is neither complex nor time consuming.”

Mallori Spilker, vice president of public affairs for the apartment association, didn’t speak at the meeting.

Afterward she said the organization is “evaluating the ordinance and discussing next steps with our legal counsel and members.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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