Eviction of 8 Petaluma families puts new spotlight on rental market

Eight families have been told to leave a Petaluma apartment complex shortly after it was sold to an investor. The scene is becoming increasingly common in Sonoma County, housing advocates say.|

Anahi Cisneros, a business major at Sonoma State University and the first in her family to attend college, is trying to focus on her studies. Instead, she has spent most days for the past month and a half helping her parents search for a new apartment after they received an eviction notice in February.

The family’s search in Sonoma County’s increasingly tight rental market has been frenetic.

“We don’t know where we’re going to go,” said Cisneros, 19, whose family is one of eight being evicted from a small apartment complex in Petaluma. “We’ve been looking but we can’t find anything. We’re all really stressed out.”

The families, many of whom have lived in the eight-unit complex for more than a decade, said they were not given a reason when asked to leave.

“I didn’t move out, I was kicked out. I don’t know why. I’m a good tenant,” said Jesus Torres, 69, who lived with his wife in their apartment at 200 Walnut St. for nearly 42 years until this month. “I thought I was going to die in that apartment.”

The tenants - most of whom are Latino - said a new owner raised their rents by about $700 shortly after buying the apartment complex in mid-December. Tenants were then served 60-day notices to vacate their apartments on Feb. 2, even if they were willing to pay the higher rents, according to tenants who shared copies of the eviction notice.

The new property owner, listed as Milad Sabetimani on a notification delivered to the tenants, did not return multiple calls seeking comment.

The move underscores a growing trend in Sonoma County’s resurgent housing market, where investors have been snapping up apartment buildings and raising rents, local real estate agents and housing rights attorneys said.

“We are seeing unprecedented wipeouts of low-income tenant complexes - often substandard, and often immigrant-occupied,” said Ronit Rubinoff, executive director of Legal Aid of Sonoma County, a program that offers free legal advice to renters. “Tenants are being turned out all at once in order to raise rents and in many cases, people are being issued eviction notices on top of huge rent increases.”

Sales of apartment buildings in Sonoma County have risen significantly since the depths of the recession, said Scott Gerber, managing director for San Rafael-based Bradley Real Estate. Nearly 200 apartment buildings, totaling 3,729 units, have been sold in Sonoma County since 2013, he said.

“The apartment investment market drew to a complete crawl in 2008 and 2009,” Gerber said. “Now we’re seeing more and more transactions. It’s higher than average because the market is healthy.”

Only around 1 percent of the apartments in Sonoma County are vacant, creating intense competition among tenants looking for somewhere to live. As a result, rents have climbed 40 percent in the past four years, according to Real Answers, a Novato real estate research firm.

The result has left many renters out in the cold.

“We’ve looked all over Petaluma, all over Rohnert Park, all over Santa Rosa,” said Marina Vazquez de Cisneros, Anahi’s mom. “It’s bad. We’re totally overwhelmed.”

Cisneros and some other residents who lived in the Walnut Street apartment building said they asked the new property owners if they could stay, despite the rent increases. Tenants reported having their rents raised to $1,800 or $1,850, up from $1,075. They said they are not being given a chance to stay.

“They said they just want us out,” Anahi Cisneros said.

Torres, who was the longest-standing tenant at the complex, said he also was not given a choice. He has since moved in with his daughter.

The other families must be out by April 4.

The evictions are the latest in a string of high-profile housing cases in which families living in below-market-rate rentals are forced to move. Last January, nine Santa Rosa families were given rent increases, then kicked out of their Hoen Avenue apartment complex due to health and safety concerns associated with mold and other substandard housing conditions. Last summer, 21 mostly Latino families were evicted from a low-rent apartment complex in Healdsburg after it was sold, prompting cries of racism.

The rent increases and evictions are amplifying a concerted countywide push for increased tenant protections, including proposals to restrict rent increases and to require landlords to have good cause for evicting a tenant.

The Santa Rosa City Council this year is set to decide whether to limit how much landlords are allowed to raise rents. Other proposals before the City Council include mandatory rental inspections and new rules to govern eviction proceedings.

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors this month also staked out a plan to study rent control and eviction policies this year, along with other reforms to assist tenants living in substandard housing.

“These protections are important because we’re seeing huge rent increases of 40, 50 percent or more, from Healdsburg to Santa Rosa to Petaluma,” said David Grabill, a housing rights attorney and activist. “People are working two and three jobs and still struggling to live here, and in many cases, there are serious health and safety problems in their units.”

Grabill and other activists say they are now turning their attention to Petaluma, where they want the City Council to examine rent control and other measures to aid tenants.

“Landlords know they can get away with raising rents more and more,” said Davin Cardenas, an activist with the North Bay Organizing Project, which is spearheading the push, dubbed the “right to a roof” campaign. “And they’re being allowed to ignore substandard housing that needs to be renovated … there aren’t really any consequences.”

Gerber, who has participated in the debate over rent control and just-cause eviction policies in Santa Rosa, said the focus should be on creating an annual inspection program for rentals. He argued the rent increases in Healdsburg and substandard housing problems at the Hoen Avenue apartment building are rare cases.

“Those are exceptions to the rule,” Gerber said. “Unfortunately, owners sometimes make mistakes because they are not very experienced.”

Grabill, the housing rights attorney, said there are substantial substandard housing problems at the Walnut Street complex. He and Rubinoff are assessing tenants’ complaints.

It is unclear what the new owner plans for the property.

Prominent real estate groups, including the North Bay Association of Realtors, are vying to convince Santa Rosa officials to reject rent control and just-cause eviction policies. Instead, they want government to lower barriers to constructing new housing and consider mandatory rental inspections or landlord-tenant mediation programs.

“We don’t like the existing system either,” Gerber said. “It’s not good for tenants, and it’s not good for landlords.”

Petaluma Mayor David Glass said the city informally studied whether rent control and other tenant protection policies would be viable after Santa Rosa first took up the matter last year, but found it could cost the city about $1 million a year to implement and enforce.

“I don’t see the point of spending thousands of taxpayer dollars studying something that we just plain can’t afford,” Glass said. “Don’t confuse that with desire. My family lost our house when I was young, I get it. But the city’s finances are overly stretched, we’re bare-boned as it is. I don’t know what the solution is.”

Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González contributed to this ?report. You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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