Close to Home: Give Santa Rosa renters a floor and a ceiling

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Sonoma County’s affordable housing crisis, which was challenging prior to the Tubbs fire, is now on the verge of catastrophe. The county and all nine cities must adopt emergency measures and a multipronged approach to avert the displacement of low- and moderate-income renters.

A 2017 report by the California Housing Partnership Corp. outlines the scope of the crisis. Between 2000 and 2015, inflation-adjusted median rent in the county increased by 16 percent while median renter income declined by 6 percent. Then, according to, median rents jumped by 36 percent after the October fires. The CHPC report also indicates that since 2008, federal and state funding for affordable housing in the county dropped by a whopping 87 percent.

Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature approved a package of bills last year to increase funding for affordable housing, including a $4 billion bond measure that voters will consider in the November election. Santa Rosa also may place a housing bond measure on the ballot. However, even if both are approved, construction will take several years.

The county’s housing and displacement crisis requires immediate action and is compounded by the high cost of living in coastal California and the explosion of low-wage employment. According to the California Budget and Policy Project, in Sonoma County in 2017, a living-wage for two parents working full-time with two children is no less than $23 an hour to cover all basic expenses without relying on public assistance.

Yet 54 percent of the jobs created in the county between 2012 and 2022, mainly service sector jobs, will pay less than a livable wage, according to estimates by the state Employment Development Department.

In 2016, the Brookings Institution reported that housing costs in metro regions across the nation rose much faster than incomes for low- and moderate-income families. These regions are where most of the country’s population growth is occurring and, not surprisingly, the proportion of renters to homeowners is also climbing. The affordable housing crisis is rooted in soaring inequality, stagnant and falling wages and an insufficient supply of subsidized affordable housing.

Two emergency measures the city of Santa Rosa and other jurisdictions can adopt now to address the underlying causes of the crisis and minimize displacement are rent control and a $15 minimum wage.

The Santa Rosa City Council approved rent control and just-cause eviction protections in 2016, but the California Apartment Association placed a referendum on the ballot in 2017, and, in a low turnout primary, rent control was repealed by 4 points, despite the fact that proponents were outspent by a 5-1 margin. However, rent control advocates have gathered signatures to place a measure on the ballot this fall that will limit rent increases to the annual rise of the Consumer Price Index, with a cap of 5 percent.

Santa Rosa voters will likely make the city the 19th local jurisdiction in the state to adopt binding rent control and just-cause eviction protections. A recent report by Urban Habitat, based on in-depth analyses of three cities with rent control — Santa Monica, Berkeley and Richmond — found that rent control provides more affordable rents and stability for tenants, while not deterring construction of new housing, lowering property values, nor requiring appropriations from the general fund to effectively enforce.

To raise incomes and the wage floor, Santa Rosa can implement a $15-an-hour minimum wage that would phase in by 2020 and mandate six paid sick days, affecting 37,000 workers in the city. Currently, the state minimum wage is $11 an hour for large employers and will gradually increase to $15 an hour by 2023 for all employers. Twenty-four California cities and one county have approved minimum wages higher than the state.

According to the UC Berkeley Labor Center, 96 percent of the workers who receive a raise when the minimum is boosted are adults over 20, and more than half are women and Latinos. On average, these low-wage workers provide more than half of their family income. When the minimum wage increase is phased in the average annual earnings of affected workers will increase by 24 percent or about $3,700.

It is not by accident that 11 California cities have both minimum wages higher than the state’s and rent control. Santa Rosa should follow. Tenants need both a floor and a celling, because the rent can’t wait.

Martin J. Bennett is instructor emeritus of history at Santa Rosa Junior College and co-chairman of North Bay Jobs with Justice.

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