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SLO City Council votes to repeal rental housing inspection program

The San Luis Obispo City Council listens during a community forum in 2017 on the rental inspection program, which it later repealed.
The San Luis Obispo City Council listens during a community forum in 2017 on the rental inspection program, which it later repealed. nwilson@thetribunenews.com

The long-debated Rental Housing Inspection Program in San Luis Obispo is nearly off the books after the City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to repeal it.

The council heard the first reading of the repeal of the ordinance, which was adopted in May 2015 and subjected rental homes to routine city inspections to determine whether they conform to health and safety standards.

The concept behind the ordinance, voted in by the previous council, was to protect tenants from slumlords and substandard living conditions. Councilwoman Carlyn Christianson is the only remaining member of the previous council who voted for the ordinance.

Opponents of the ordinance said that mandatory inspections were an invasion of privacy and that costs to landlords would be passed on to tenants, raising rents in a city that already has pricey housing.

“I think it was a good policy that was done for the right reasons,” Christianson said Tuesday, while voting for the repeal. “We just didn’t get the people of the community behind it. And now, after listening to the community, we have to face reality.”

The second reading of the repeal, which will formalize its adoption by city regulation, is scheduled for March 21.

The council held a community forum Feb. 16 to receive input on the program and how it should move forward. The 250 residents at the meeting overwhelmingly supported its repeal, and the council suspended new inspections at the time, as it prepared for a repeal.

Three new council members — Mayor Heidi Harmon, and council members Aaron Gomez and Andy Pease — all ran their campaigns in support of at least changing the law. Harmon supported outright repeal. Councilman Dan Rivoire, who was a member of the previous council along with Christianson, voted against establishing the ordinance in 2015.

As the council voted to repeal the ordinance, it also began its process of ramping up programs to try to address problems with substandard rental housing under its existing complaint-driven code violation system.

Over the next six months, the city will gather community and stakeholder input with tenants, landlords, property managers, as well as Cuesta College and Cal Poly, and others on how best to educate the community about housing rights and responsibilities.

That could include mailers, utility bill notices, Facebook posts and involvement from Cal Poly’s Associated Students Inc.

“ASI has reached out to us and said they want to be involved with making tenants aware of their rights,” Gomez said.

During a public outreach phase, the council also will explore the potential effectiveness of increasing fines for landlords who violate housing code regulations after fix-it notices are issued.

Also, the city will look into starting a self-certification program that tasks landlords and tenants with completing a checklist assessing compliant housing conditions (such as functioning water heaters and safe electrical panels) upon move-in and potentially every year.

Rivoire said a checklist would serve as an educational tool for tenants and landlords to ensure healthy and safe living conditions, and doubled fines would be an effective tool to force compliance.

“I think that in some cases the best way to get a landlord to comply is with mandatory fines,” Rivoire said. “If they are issued a notice and they don’t comply, they should be held accountable. And the best way to do that is through financial penalties.”

The council also soon may need to decide how to address a petition with 7,111 signatures to repeal and replace the ordinance with specific language about “nondiscrimination in housing.” The petition was filed by attorney Stew Jenkins, former Councilman Dan Carpenter and local construction law attorney Dan Knight.

The council didn’t discuss the petition Tuesday. The county Clerk-Recorder’s Office is still in the process of having the signatures certified, City Attorney Christine Dietrick said. Certification is due by April 4.

The petition includes a replacement policy that would prohibit discrimination based on race, gender, income, sexual identity, ownership or renter status and other classifications by “imposing any compulsory program, policy, intrusion applicable to any residential dwelling unit.”

Once the signatures are certified, the City Council has three options: At its next meeting, it can adopt the petition ordinance, order a 30-day report from the City Attorney’s Office on the impacts of the proposal, or call a special election.

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