SLO suspends rental housing inspections, moves to repeal ordinance

The San Luis Obispo City Council opted to suspend new rental housing inspections and work to repeal the city’s Rental Housing Inspection Ordinance at a workshop Thursday.
The San Luis Obispo City Council opted to suspend new rental housing inspections and work to repeal the city’s Rental Housing Inspection Ordinance at a workshop Thursday.

New rental housing inspections have been suspended as San Luis Obispo moves toward repealing the city’s controversial Rental Housing Inspection Program.

The San Luis Obispo City Council voted unanimously Thursday night to immediately suspend the inspections and work to repeal the full inspection program during a town hall workshop attended by about 250 residents mostly opposed to a program they view as an invasion of privacy to renters and a financial burden to landlords.

The council directed the city’s staff to draft a repeal of the ordinance that affects about 4,000 homes in the city. The council is expected to consider a first reading of a formal repeal at its March 7 meeting.

Under the program adopted by the council in May 2015, rental homes in San Luis Obispo were subject to routine city inspections on a three-year cycle to determine whether they conform to health and safety regulations. The program aimed to protect tenants who otherwise might not complain about substandard living conditions.

The council now will consider a beefed-up rental housing complaint program, offering more resources to make tenants aware of their housing rights and ensure code compliance from landlords. That initiative could include citywide mailers and a hotline to report violations anonymously.

“We’ve heard from the community that there are widespread concerns about this program that we need to meaningfully address,” Mayor Heidi Harmon said. “I’m absolutely in favor of replacing (the ordinance), if that’s the language we want to use, with something that is not intrusive and does not bring up the concerns about privacy, but that addresses the basic health and safety concerns that landlords and tenants share.”

Since the rental housing inspections began, 915 homes have been inspected, said Michael Codron, the city’s community development director. Of those, 763 units needed at least some follow-up repairs to comply with code; 422 corrections have been completed with 341 outstanding, and 116 require significant repairs that will need a permit to correct. Follow-up inspections may be required for rentals that needed repairs.

Common violations included substandard electrical outlets and panels, missing carbon monoxide and smoke detectors, and malfunctioning water heaters. While the council suspended new inspections, homes found in violation will still need to meet compliance standards.

Most who attended the workshop, including many landlords, complained that the program imposed burdensome fees, invaded privacy (despite the option of tenants to refuse an inspection) and added unnecessary regulation.

“I think the rental inspection program is an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy,” landlord Chuck Lowe said. “But I think that a complaint-based program is good. I think most landlords do a pretty good job of keeping up their properties, but a small number don’t and tenants should be able to report that.”

Council members suggested a public outreach campaign with mailers to educate landlords and tenants about health and safety compliance. Other recommendations included a checklist of housing conditions that a landlord and a tenant could both sign and submit to the city before move-in, as well as preventive measures to stop landlords from retaliating against tenants who file complaints.

The council also recommended consideration of a self-certification program for landlords to voluntarily invite inspections and receive a certificate showing their rental homes are in compliance with health and safety codes.

Councilwoman Carlyn Christianson, who voted to adopt the ordinance in 2015, suggested a “311 hotline” for anonymous complaints, citing a similar program in Berkeley.

“This is not a situation where you have 99 percent of the people right and 1 percent wrong,” Christianson said. “We had an 85 percent fail rate in 915 inspections so far. I’m very concerned that we have problems that still need to be addressed and we need a strong educational piece for landlords and tenants.”

Councilman Dan Rivoire said that while the city will likely have to subsidize a beefed-up complaint program initially, he hoped to find ways to minimize costs.

Some in the audience suggested asking Cal Poly to help pay for enforcement and education resources. But Rivoire said that it’s unrealistic to expect the university to foot the entire bill, because an estimated 6,000 city renters are nonstudents while 5,000 are students.

“That’s not to say we shouldn’t reach out, but Cal Poly wouldn’t bear the entire cost burden,” Rivoire said.

As the council moves toward repeal, a petition coordinated by attorney Stew Jenkins, former Councilman Dan Carpenter and construction law attorney Dan Knight was handed over to the city Thursday, which they say had 7,000 signatures.

The petition calls for a special election or for the council to repeal and replace the ordinance with language mandating “nondiscrimination in housing” based on criteria such as age, race, income, ethnicity and dwelling status as an owner or renter.

“If they decide to defend some sort of right to discriminate, then they would have to spend money on a special election,” Jenkins said. “We think, once the signatures are verified, we’ll clear 20 to 25 percent of the electorate who are in support (of the replacement ordinance).”

Jenkins acknowledges that constitutional rights already protect individuals from discrimination, but he believes residents would have to fight discriminatory actions on their own through lawsuits, and a city policy would better prevent future discriminatory inspection actions.

Before deciding on adoption or special election, the council, however, could opt for a report from the City Attorney’s Office on the various impacts a suggested “nondiscrimination” policy would have.