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‘Nondiscrimination in housing’ law will be put to a vote in SLO special election

San Luis Obispo City Council members attend a workshop earlier this year.
San Luis Obispo City Council members attend a workshop earlier this year. nwilson@thetribunenews.com

San Luis Obispo voters will decide this summer whether to adopt an ordinance that supporters say would end discrimination in city housing policies while city officials say it could harm housing programs for the poor and elderly.

The “nondiscrimination in housing” ballot measure was proposed in a petition written and circulated by lawyers Stew Jenkins and Dan Knight and former City Councilman Dan Carpenter in response to the city’s controversial Rental Housing Inspection Program. The City Council has since rescinded the inspection program, but Jenkins said his group still wants voters to weigh in on the anti-discrimination issue.

No date has been set yet for the special election, but by law it must take place within 88 and 103 days of the City Council’s decision Tuesday to put it on the ballot. That means the election must be held by Aug. 29.

The estimated cost to the city will be between $119,000 and $158,000.

The council was required by law to either approve the ordinance proposed in the petition, which was signed by more than 7,000 residents, or put it in front of voters. Council members unanimously opted for a special election because they opposed the ordinance and fear it could put the city at legal risk.

There’s no way I’m willing to gamble with inclusionary housing. To put that at risk of any type, I’m just not willing to do it.

Aaron Gomez, San Luis Obispo City Council member

“As much as I don’t want to spend the money that this is going to cost, I don’t see any other choice,” Councilman Aaron Gomez said.

The petition, initiated in August 2016, called for repealing the Rental Housing Inspection Program, which mandated regular city inspections of all single-family rentals as a way to protect tenants — particularly the large number of college students in San Luis Obispo — from substandard living conditions. The council, with three newly elected members in November, repealed the ordinance March 21 after widespread criticism pointed out that the law violated tenant privacy, increased rental prices and could reduce needed rental stock.

With that issue now moot, the rest of the petition calls for a “nondiscrimination in housing” ballot measure, which would ban 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.”

The measure stipulates that “no determination to conduct an inspection of any dwelling shall be based substantially on any occupant’s age, income, disability, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual identity or status as an owner or renter of such dwelling.”

Jenkins said the law could set a tone for the rest of the nation, similar to San Luis Obispo’s ban of smoking in nearly all public places.

“This is an opportunity for you to make sure that people are treated the same,” Jenkins said at Tuesday’s council meeting. “This will prevent future councils from discriminating.”

City Attorney Christine Dietrick and Community Development Director Michael Codron presented a report to the council that assessed possible conflicts with several city policies, including an inclusionary housing law that requires residential developers to either build units for low-income residents or pay in-lieu fees for future affordable housing. More than 500 affordable home units for low-income residents have been built since the policy was adopted, Codron said.

This is an opportunity for you to make sure that people are treated the same. This will prevent future councils from discriminating.

Stew Jenkins, proposed ordinance petitioner

A Mobile Home Rent Stabilization program that restricts how much rents can be increased also could face a legal challenge if voters approve the measure, Codron said.

The measure also could jeopardize a residential rental property and licensing tax that generates about $200,000 per year for the city, Codron said.

Dietrick said state law already prohibits discrimination based on race, gender and disability, though no policy guides cities on housing based on “owner” or “renter” status and sexual identity.

Based on that advice from city staff, Gomez and other council members said they opposed the measure.

“There’s no way I’m willing to gamble with inclusionary housing,” Gomez said. “To put that at risk of any type, I’m just not willing to do it.”

Mayor Heidi Harmon said, “I have a lot of concerns in potentially risking the programs that disproportionately benefit people from the marginalized communities that this initiative is claiming to be interested in protecting. That is deeply concerning to me.”

In a four-page memo addressed to Harmon, Jenkins said the proposal would not impact any existing city programs.

“There is no discrimination inherent in the inclusionary housing program against those able to afford a home,” Jenkins wrote. “To the extent that developers are required to price some of their new structures for the working poor, this program does not discriminate against those otherwise able to afford a home. Nor does it discriminate against those who are otherwise unable to afford a home.”

I have a lot of concerns in potentially risking the programs that disproportionately benefit people from the marginalized communities that this initiative is claiming to be interested in protecting.

Heidi Harmon, San Luis Obispo mayor

Jenkins added that mobile home park rentals apply to “ground space” below a home and not the home itself, and limits on space rent are uniform to all mobile home park owners regardless of their age, any disability, ownership of a home or any other status.

Harmon said she felt frustrated that the council worked to repeal the rental housing inspection law and now has to address a special election that sprung from opposition to the program.

“I think the level of frustration is probably pretty consistent up here on the council and beyond, especially when it was clear that this (Rental Housing Inspection) Program would be overturned,” Harmon said.

The petitioners could have waited to file the petition until after hearing the council’s direction at a Feb. 16 night meeting, which resulted in suspension of rental inspections and a subsequent vote to repeal it March 7. But the petitioners chose to move forward anyway, filing their initiative with the city in the afternoon of Feb. 16.

Jenkins said a permanent policy would ensure that future councils won’t reconsider and establish a new rental inspection program.

Correction: This story has been changed to include the correct date the petition was filed with the city. It was filed Feb. 16.

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