Sonoma County, Santa Rosa gear up for action on poor housing conditions, evictions
Elected officials representing Sonoma County and the city of Santa Rosa are facing a pair of key discussions next month that could determine how the county and its largest city respond to a host of issues tied to the torrid local housing market, including soaring rents and substandard rentals that jeopardize the health and safety of tenants.
At stake are steps and votes that could move the pair of governments closer to enacting a range of enhanced protections for tenants, including limits on rent increases, new rules governing eviction proceedings and mandatory rental inspections.
The movement, which could lead to action in other local cities, comes amid a housing crunch that some officials have called a crisis. Elected officials for the county, Santa Rosa, Healdsburg, Petaluma and Sonoma have discussed the issue in recent months, but little has been done in response.
“We need to address this. … It’s getting worse,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman Efren Carrillo. “Right now we don’t have enough resources or staffing to do consistent inspections, or the ability to ensure people have quality housing. It’s a problem.”
Supervisors are expected to launch a broad effort in April that will seek various ways to alleviate the county’s housing crunch. In addition to policies covering rent control, just-cause eviction and mandatory rental inspections, the board is set to consider beefing up code enforcement to reduce health and safety violations linked to substandard housing.
Carrillo said the initiative is driven, in part, by a yearlong Press Democrat investigation, published over four days in January, that documented the prevalence of squalid rental housing in cities and communities across the county. The stories explored the effects on tenants living in conditions that in some cases went unfixed for years, resulting in chronic problems with mold, vermin and cockroach infestations, inadequate heating, broken plumbing and other structural problems.
“We’re looking at how to ensure our homes are healthy,” Carrillo said. “We have the ability to do this, we just have not been very successful at enforcing the rules.”
Other supervisors acknowledged shortfalls in the county’s enforcement of state health and safety laws governing housing. More must be done to assist tenants, they said.
“We need to add extra protections for those folks who are vulnerable, given the tight housing market,” Supervisor David Rabbitt said.
Through a series of meetings in The Springs area north of Sonoma, Supervisor Susan Gorin said, she has become acutely aware of the problems renters are facing.
“I’m hearing more and more horror stories about how people’s rents are increasing dramatically, yet landlords are unresponsive to their housing concerns,” Gorin said. “We need to do more to help people … especially those who have very little political power.”
The board’s April 5 discussion is scheduled for the same day the Santa Rosa City Council is slated to take up part of its own policy response to substandard housing problems, which city officials acknowledge have been exacerbated by the housing crunch.
“Housing is at such a premium, and people are paying top dollar for rental housing all over the entire county,” Santa Rosa Mayor John Sawyer said. “We need to make sure it’s safe and well-managed. There’s never any excuse for charging people to live in housing that is unsafe. It’s unacceptable.”
The debate over how to address substandard housing comes amid a heated discussion in Santa Rosa about possible city action to curb steep rent increases and in some cases, retaliatory evictions of low-income tenants. Housing rights attorneys and activists say such cases have increased significantly over the past two years.
In response to such reports, the Santa Rosa City Council over the past nine months has staked out policy options to assist renters. A highly anticipated vote on whether to enact rent control or impose new rules for landlords seeking to evict tenants is expected later this year.
Rent control foes
Real estate officials and investors, however, are trying to convince the council to reject rent control and just-cause eviction policies, which would require landlords to give tenants a good reason for kicking them out.
“We’re opposed to rent control because we think it will have a detrimental effect for years to come,” said Daniel Sanchez, director of government affairs for the North Bay Association of Realtors. “But we’re open to a rental inspection program. It could send a message to landlords that the city will target properties with habitability issues.”