Fate of Rent Control Could Be Decided in Santa Rosa City Council Election

Sunday, September 25, 2016
Kevin McCallum
Santa Rosa Press Democrat

Four seats are opening up on the Santa Rosa City Council this year, and with two incumbents bowing out, voters soon will have a significant say in the political priorities for the North Coast’s largest city.

Housing, homelessness, roads and cannabis regulation are all on voters’ minds this year, but one issue is dominating the city’s political discourse: rent control.

The controversial policy, passed Aug. 29 and set to go into effect Friday, has not only split the City Council down the middle, but it has sharply divided the six candidates, as well.

Three candidates — Councilwoman Julie Combs, Jack Tibbetts and Chris Rogers — support, to varying degrees, the city’s new rent control law, which calls for a 3 percent cap on rent increases for many older rental properties.

The other three — Councilman Ernesto Olivares, Don Taylor and Brandi Asker — all oppose the idea, and say they would vote to overturn the law if the opportunity arose.

That makes this year’s election somewhat unusual in that it has clear policy consequences for tens of thousands of city residents.

“I’m not sure that voters have really zeroed in yet on just how important this election is,” said Terry Price, a retired Santa Rosa political consultant who once worked for Combs. “This will decide the direction of rent control for the next 20 years.”

Riveted, and in many cases mortified, by one of the most unusual and polarizing presidential election years in memory, many Sonoma County voters have yet to turn their attention to local races. But with vote-by-mail ballots going out on Oct. 10, voters will soon be deluged with mailers, television ads and candidate forums seeking to influence races for city, county and state offices as well as ballot measures and initiatives. A key candidates’ forum for the City Council race is set for this Thursday at the council chambers.

The two council incumbents stepping down, Gary Wysocky and Erin Carlstrom, both voted to support rent control and an accompanying policy to protect renters from unfair evictions.

Much of the attention on the rent control fight in Santa Rosa has focused on the petition drive underway to overturn the policy, a push that appears to be backed by the California Apartment Association, a trade group which represents landlords.

f the drive succeeds in gathering signatures from 8,450 registered voters, the council will decide whether to repeal the law or send it to a vote of the people, which would suspend the implementation of the law until voters decide its fate. But anti-rent control forces aren’t putting all their eggs in the referendum basket. They’re also pouring loads of money into the Nov. 8 election, hoping to tip the tenuous 4-3 balance on the council favoring rent control back in their favor.

“This is the referendum before the referendum,” said Combs, the council’s strongest supporter of rent control. “I believe this is a referendum on rent stabilization and just-cause for eviction and whether we’re going to allow the apartment association to buy an election.”

Combs was referring to the independent expenditure committee recently established by a group called the Citizens for Economic and Affordable Housing Solutions, which is backed by the California Apartment Association.

The organization has received $50,000 to date, which it says is to support Taylor, the owner of two Omelette Express restaurants in Sonoma County.

Taylor says he’s against rent control because he’s a longtime pro-business candidate and landlord who believes the way to control rents is to increase the supply of housing. Taylor served on the city’s Planning Commission in the early 2000s and has run for council unsuccessfully four times since.

“I am who I am, and I’m not for rent control,” Taylor said.

The committee supporting Taylor has received $25,000 from the California Apartment Association, $15,000 from the California Association of Realtors and $10,000 from the Sonoma County Alliance, a local business group.

Brian Ling, executive director of the alliance, said the group is supporting Taylor not because of his position on rent control but because he’s the “most business- and economic development-friendly candidate on the ballot.”

Both Taylor and his political consultant, Herb Williams, said they were unaware of how much money the committee had raised or how it planned to support Taylor’s candidacy. Its officers were listed in regulatory filings as Daniel Sanchez, director of government affairs for the North Bay Association of Realtors, and Mallori Spilker, executive director of the North Coast office of the statewide apartment association. Neither responded to requests for comment Friday.

Williams, a veteran Santa Rosa consultant, said the amount raised by the group was “unusual” for a City Council race.

“I can’t remember an I.E. (independent expenditure) campaign of $50,000 in recent years,” he said.

How the group spends its money this election season remains to be seen. Most political mailers tend to arrive in October.

An informational pamphlet for the four candidates ­— Olivares, Taylor, Rogers and Asker — who agreed to abide by a voluntary campaign expenditure limit of $51,879 was mailed Friday. Sample ballots will be sent out Thursday and mail-in ballots follow on Oct. 10.

However they are framed, the messages in support of Taylor are sure to keep the rent control issue front and center for many city voters in coming weeks.

For Olivares, who came to this country as a toddler from Mexico and grew up poor in the Central Valley, the issue has been challenging. On one hand, he knows that many low-income people, including Latinos, are suffering under the county’s soaring rents.

“This has been a tough one for me because I know there are people out there in great need,” said Olivares, a retired Santa Rosa police lieutenant seeking a third term on the council.

He says rent control is the wrong solution to the city’s housing problems because he claims it isn’t equitable, hasn’t worked in other communities and raises questions about how landlords are supposed to maintain and upgrade their properties.

State law prevents local rent control laws from covering units built after Feb. 1, 1995. It also exempts single-family homes, duplexes and condominiums. The city’s law also exempts owner-occupied triplexes. About 11,000 of the city’s 68,000 housing units, or 16 percent of the city’s housing stock, is covered by the law.

The housing shortage is a complex problem that needs a long-term solution, and not an “easy fix” like rent control, Olivares said.

On the opposite side of the debate is Combs, who is seeking a second term on the council. She contends that protecting renters from the destabilizing effects of sharp rental increases and unfair evictions is a key piece of the city’s broader housing strategy.

While opponents dismiss rent control as a Band-Aid, Combs has argued that it is really “a tourniquet to prevent our community from bleeding out its working families, young adults, seniors and our middle class.” She has also stressed that in addition to rent control the city is working to streamline the permit process and incentivize the construction of more affordable housing.

Combs said she had no problem running on her record against other candidates, but when interest groups start pumping money into a City Council election, she worries that the playing field isn’t level.

“When outside money starts trying to influence a local election, that’s not business as usual,” Combs said.

While she doesn’t have a complete history at hand, Combs said the $50,000 raised by Citizens for Economic and Affordable Housing Solutions represents “either the most or nearly the most well-funded I.E. campaign to meddle in a City Council campaign.”

When individuals are limited to donating $500 per candidate per City Council election and such committees have no limits, “it strikes me that that’s not a fair fight,” she said.

Political newcomer Asker sees rent control through the lens of her work as a district manager of the 12 Santa Rosa Starbucks. She has witnessed firsthand how difficult it can be for business people to build in the city, and feels that streamlining the permit process and making the city more welcoming to developers is a better long-term solution.

“It’s easier to build in San Francisco,” Asker said. “We are still behind other cities in the Bay Area with how quickly we can move projects through the process.”

Asker, the mother of two young girls and a resident of Rincon Valley, called rent control a “short-term reactive solution” to a problem that will only be solved through supply and demand.

“Long-term, we just need to build more houses,” she said, calling herself “pro-growth” and in favor of a wide range of housing construction.

The other two candidates who are in favor of Santa Rosa’s rent control law, Tibbetts and Rogers, are quick to temper the degree of their support for the policy.

Like Asker, both are first-time council candidates, though both serve on city boards. Tibbetts sits on the powerful Board of Public Utilities, which oversees the city’s vast water and wastewater treatment systems, and Rogers serves on the Community Advisory Board, which seeks to boost engagement in government decisions by residents.

Rogers said he is “not a big fan” of rent control, but would have voted in favor of it had he been on the council.

“We see far too many people in our community who are struggling, and I would have tried anything,” Rogers said.

But he’s not convinced that everyone who will benefit from rent control really needs the help because the city didn’t do a detailed socioeconomic impact study of the policy before passing it.

Rogers, a policy manager at green energy financing firm Ygrene Energy who most recently served as a district representative for state Sen. Mike McGuire, said he would want to study the rent control policy closely to make sure it’s helping the people it is supposed to.

He said he believes the “ultimate solution is going to be more housing.”

“It’s a balance and it’s going to take time for us to find that balance,” he said.

Tibbetts said that when he was seeking endorsements, he got asked “point blank” by some of the business groups whether he would repeal the rent control law, and he said he wouldn’t.

“Am I going to go in there and blow up the ordinance? Absolutely not,” Tibbetts said.

While he would have voted in favor of the law as proposed, he felt it should have been more clearly a short-term measure instead of a long-term city program.

Tibbetts said he would have supported a moratorium on rent increases, which the council passed over the summer to prevent landlords from raising rents before the rent control law took effect. But he would have preferred an earlier sunset date. Currently, the policy calls for the council to consider — but would not require — repeal of the ordinance if the rental vacancy rate exceeds 5 percent for a full year.

Tibbetts said he would have tried to convince his colleagues to reduce that figure, and may if he wins a seat on the council.

“I think that we’re probably not going to get to 5 percent ever again,” he said.

The city’s current rental vacancy rate is about 1 percent.

Tibbetts said he struggles with his own $1,800 rent himself and wonders how he’ll ever be able to afford a home in the city where he was born and raised. He previously worked for a clean energy company, California Clean Power, and was recently named executive director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of Sonoma County.

He’d like to see the city focus on encouraging homeownership, boosting support for sweat equity projects and passing a $10 million bond that could be used, when leveraged with other funds, to increase housing construction in the city.

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