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Rent control likely to make it back on Santa Rosa ballot

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Supporters of rent control in Santa Rosa appear to have gathered enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot, setting up what looks to be a rematch last waged in a 2017 referendum that scuttled the city’s rent control law.

Housing activists this week submitted to the city 11,565 signatures, 22 percent more than needed to qualify for the ballot, Santa Rosa City Clerk Daisy Gomez said.

Ten percent of the city’s 89,849 registered voters, or 8,985 people, would need to sign a valid petition for the issue to get on the ballot this fall.

The county Registrar of Voters has begun the process of counting and validating the signatures, and is expected to complete the work by late July, Gomez said.

The deadline for qualifying for the Nov. 6 ballot is Aug. 10.

The petition calls for “rent stabilization” that limits annual rent increases to the consumer price index, imposes just-cause-for-eviction rules, and is otherwise consistent with state law.

The apparent success of the petition drive seems likely to set up another costly clash between supporters, in this case led by the North Bay Organizing Project, and landlords, represented by the California Apartment Association.

The City Council has the option of either putting the issue on the ballot or just implementing rent control, but given the issue’s contentious history in the city, the latter seems unlikely.

A sharply divided City Council in 2016 passed rent control that would have capped annual rent increases to 3 percent per year for older apartments, but it never went into effect.

Opponents funded a petition drive to give voters the chance to overturn the law, and in June of 2017 they did. The law was defeated by a margin of 51.2 percent to 48.8 percent — a difference of fewer than 800 votes among over 33,000 cast.

This time around, however, supporters have several things in their favor. Rents have soared even higher since the October wildfires, though anti-gouging laws have restricted increases to 10 percent of pre-disaster rates.

And since 2017, Santa Rosa has annexed Roseland, making an estimated 7,000 people — many of them renters — eligible to vote in city elections. November elections also have larger turnouts, another factor that could bring out more renters.

Working in landlords’ favor, however, is that property owners might be able to make an even stronger argument than they did last year that rent control risks depressing investment in new apartment construction.

Separately, a measure to strengthen rent control laws statewide recently qualified for the ballot. It would ask state voters to repeal the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, which prohibits local rent control ordinances from regulating single-family homes and condominiums or any unit built after 1995.

That means if both measures pass, rent control could be the law of the land in Santa Rosa for all existing apartments, which some opponents argue would hamper construction of new apartments.

The Santa Rosa measure, at least, includes a provision that would exempt new apartments built over the next 16 years.

Santa Rosa City Councilwoman Julie Combs, a strong supporter of rent control, said she fully expected the powerful real estate lobby in Sacramento would get state legislation passed exempting new construction.

“I would personally support having rent control not apply to new construction for a certain period of time,” Combs said.

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

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