City Beat

Will the next big campaign in Sacramento be rent control?

One election ends, the next begins.

Sacramento’s divisive – and increasingly expensive – debate over rent control is heating up, with a potential November ballot measure looming.

The coalition of labor unions and Democratic party interests behind a proposed November ballot measure will begin organizing renters affected by the city’s skyrocketing costs to testify at City Council meetings throughout the month of June, starting Thursday. The group has spent recent months gathering signatures for an initiative, to place rent caps in Sacramento, but refused to say Wednesday how many they've collected and if they even intend to file the petitions with the city.

On the other side of the debate, well-heeled groups representing businesses, developers and apartment owners sent letters to Mayor Darrell Steinberg and the City Council this week voicing opposition to the measure. The groups also threatened to file a lawsuit against the city if the measure is placed on the ballot, arguing it is the kind of far-reaching revision of the city charter that can only be proposed by a commission, not through a signature drive.

And in the middle is Steinberg and the City Council. Business groups opposing the measure said the City Council may consider passing its own rent-control ordinance, avoiding the ballot fight altogether.

"The mayor is talking to everyone," said his spokeswoman, Mary Lynne Vellinga. "He's committed to a thorough discussion and action that both increases housing supply and protects tenants from unreasonable rent increases. We're going to take the time to get it right."

Advocates have been collecting signatures for weeks trying to qualify the Sacramento Renter Protection and Community Stabilization Charter Amendment for the ballot. They need to collect at least 35,449 signatures from registered city voters.

The group is facing a tight deadline. The city clerk's office had recommended the signatures be filed by May 15, but said it could receive the petitions as late as June 20. That would give both city and county elections officials enough time to review the petitions for accuracy before the City Council is asked in August to place the measure on the November ballot.

Margarita Maldonado, a member of the coalition, declined to say how many signatures the group had collected or when it intended to file those petitions.

"We are confident that we are going to continue down the road of looking at what are the solutions that are going to help people in this region," she said.

Several studies over the past year have shown that rents in Sacramento are increasing at rates higher than any other city in the nation. Maldonado said her group hears stories regularly "from people who are being displaced by high rents and the actions that landlords and corporations have taken."

The proposed measure would limit annual rent increases on older apartments at 5 percent, would require landlords to provide thousands of dollars in financial assistance to tenants evicted for certain reasons and would create a nine-member elected housing board that would set maximum rent increases each year.

Region Business, the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, the California Apartment Association, the Sacramento Association of Realtors, the Sacramento Regional Builders Exchange and the Downtown Sacramento Partnership all sent letters to City Hall this week expressing concerns with the measure. Most of the letters also mentioned conversations taking place in the background toward a City Council ordinance, though it's unclear what that ordinance might propose.

Those organizations are concerned that capping rent increases will lead developers to stop building, hindering the supply of available housing and further driving up housing costs.

Rent control "will do nothing to solve our housing crisis, but it will exacerbate it,” read a letter from Region Business, a business advocacy group. “Instead, we need to focus on working together to create more housing supply (market rate and affordable) and only passing good policies through a thoughtful and deliberative public process. We need policies that don’t punish private industry, curb development and reduce rental housing supply.”

Before the measure has even qualified for the ballot, the rent control campaign is shaping up to be an expensive battle.

The SEIU 1000 union and affiliated labor groups have donated more than $600,000 to the committee organizing the campaign, according to campaign finance documents kept by the city clerk.

Region Business and real estate groups have poured nearly $300,000 into the opposition campaign, documents show.

"We're growing this group and it is united in its commitment to affordable housing and building more housing in Sacramento," said opposition campaign spokesman Bob Magnuson.

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