Marlina Martarano has been a renter in Santa Rosa for 42 years, and in that time she’s lived in her share of dumps.
One place had a mold infestation that made it into her bed and couch. Another had sewage that backed up into her bathroom.
But the 64-year-old retiree from a variety of odd jobs put up with the substandard conditions because she didn’t feel comfortable speaking up. She worried that if she asked the landlord to make repairs, she’d be viewed as a problem tenant and ousted.
With her meager income and federal housing voucher, Martarano knows where that would leave her in today’s rental market.
“With a 1 percent vacancy rate and being on HUD, an eviction would translate into homelessness for me right now,” Martarano said.
Which is why she’s supporting Measure C in the June 6 election.
Martarano views the city’s rent control and just-cause for eviction rules — suspended unless a majority of voters approve them in the special election — as a way to give her and other low-income residents like her much-needed protection and some peace of mind.
It gives her some comfort to know that increases to the $950 rent for her modest cottage-style unit would be capped at 3 percent per year under normal circumstances.
At the moment she pays $246 of her rent, with her federal housing voucher covering the remaining $704. If she were required to pick up the entire 3 percent increase allowed under rent control, Martarano would see her rent rise by $28.50 per month. With Social Security payments of just under $1,200 a month as her only source of income, that would sting, but she could manage, she said.
What she’s more worried about is the feeling that no matter how good a tenant she is, one day she could come home to find an eviction notice on her door, and there would be little she could do about it.
“I’ve been here for six years, but that could change tomorrow,” Martarano said.
One of the key goals of the city’s rent control and just-cause for eviction rules has been to put a stop to the type of sudden, steep rent increases that have forced many renters to leave Sonoma County, left them financially stressed, or in some cases even made them homeless.
Rents have risen by 49.5 percent in the last five years, to an average of $1,813, according to Real Answers, a Novato company that tracks data from large rental complexes.
Sonoma County now ranks 15th among U.S. communities with renters who are deemed “burdened” by the amount of income they must spend on housing. An estimated 55.1 percent of the county’s renters in 2015 spent more than 30 percent of their incomes on rent, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data by the online rent site Abodo.
The more burdened people are by their rent payments, the more difficulty they have affording other basics such as food, clothing, transportation, school books and medical care.
By capping rent increases at 3 percent annually for the approximately 11,100 units built before 1995, the city hopes to prevent what the Yes on Measure C campaign characterizes as “rent gouging” by profiteering, out-of-area landlords.
Martarano said she feels that 3 percent annual increases “seems reasonable” because it is “passive income” for landlords. She has little sympathy for those who just want to squeeze more profits out of their units, especially by deferring maintenance.
“If you’re a landlord, your place should be up to code, bottom line,” Martarano said.
She acknowledges, though, that a lot of local landlords are hardworking, honorable people who at times have gone long stretches without raising rents because they want to keep good tenants.
“I’ve talked to a lot of mom and pop landlords and my heart goes out to them,” Martarano said. “They actually feel a little hurt.”
Also supporting Measure C are Karin and Allan Jones, 72 and 73. The retired elementary school teacher and minister saw the rent they pay at their College Avenue area apartment increase from $1,050 to $1,200 at the beginning of the year.
The couple have lived in their home for 18 years, and previous rent increases had been at most $50 a year, Karin Jones said. For the first 10 years the rent didn’t go up at all.
The Joneses live off Social Security payments and a small pension, but the increases in Social Security have been eaten up by increases in Medicare, she said. So that $150 monthly increase is a big hit.
“The budget is tight,” she said. “We have to be even more careful about where we spend our money.”
It wouldn’t take many more increases like this year’s before they would be pushed out of the city where they’ve lived for more than 30 years, and that doesn’t seem right to her, she said.
“We’ve been here and we’re part of the community and we really don’t want to move,” she said.