Who should control housing policy in SLO? Voters will decide in August

San Luis Obispo City Council
San Luis Obispo City Council nwilson@thetribunenews.com

San Luis Obispo residents will decide how to chart the city’s future housing policy when they vote on a citizens’ initiative in a special election in August.

This summer’s ballot — forced by a petition that aims to wrestle control away from the city on certain housing decisions — will cost taxpayers up to $160,000.

The city warns that passage of the initiative could hurt housing options for poor people and seniors, while supporters say it will prevent mandatory “discriminatory” housing programs such as the city’s recently repealed rental housing inspections.

Voters will have until Aug. 22 to postmark their ballots or drop them off at the county Clerk-Recorder’s Office. All ballots will be sent out by mail starting July 24.

The city’s controversial rental inspection program was repealed by the new City Council, officially on April 20, but not until after the citizens’ petition was submitted Feb. 16.

Once the petition was validated, the city was required to either adopt its wording as is or move the issue to a public vote.

My job is to make sure the public has accurate information. The proposed ordinance could prohibit doing a variety of things and create a potential for legal challenge.

City Attorney Christine Dietrick

The petition was circulated by attorneys Stew Jenkins and Dan Knight and former Councilman Dan Carpenter and called for both repeal of the rental inspection program and adoption of a “nondiscrimination in housing” policy.

If approved, the initiative would prohibit any mandatory city housing program that differentiates between groups of people based on ownership or renter status, age, race and other criteria.

In the process, it would take control of creating housing policy out of elected officials’ hands and give it to voters.

City officials say the initiative could expose San Luis Obispo to a risk of lawsuits targeting programs such as affordable housing, mobile home rent control and rental property licenses and taxes that are designed to help people and pay for city operational costs.

The city’s affordable housing program, which requires developers of new housing to build units serving low-income residents or pay fees toward the program, has produced 555 affordable units in the city since 2002, according to city officials.

As part of the ballot language, the city will reference the repeal of the now-defunct inspection program.

“My job is to make sure the public has accurate information,” City Attorney Christine Dietrick said. “The proposed ordinance could prohibit doing a variety of things and create a potential for legal challenge.”

Dietrick noted the city can’t predict with certainty if anyone would sue and whether they’d be successful if the new ordinance were to pass.

The sponsors of the proposed ordinance argue that it will prevent any future council from bringing back the Rental Housing Inspection Program — which drew widespread criticism from the community, especially landlords — without voter consent. They say the ordinance violated privacy rights and increased rental housing costs in a tight market.

Don’t do a half measure. Don’t play with the words.

Stew Jenkins, ballot measure proponent

Jenkins has repeatedly said he categorically doesn’t believe the ballot measure presents a legal risk to existing city housing programs.

“The city is using diversionary tactics,” Jenkins said. “This is really a simple issue.”

At Tuesday’s council meeting, Jenkins also called for the council to present the ballot question to voters as a measure to repeal and replace the Rental Housing Inspection Ordinance without any mention that the council already revoked the program.

That’s how the petition was presented, Jenkins said, saying the law is on his side and adding that the city could bring back elements of the rental inspection program.

“Don’t do a half measure,” Jenkins said in public comment to the council. “Don’t play with the words.”

Jenkins said the city could have placed a complementary measure on the same ballot, exempting affordable housing or mobile home park rent control from the ordinance.

“(Affordable housing) does not discriminate between renters and home owners but is a requirement for developers to contribute to the fund for building subsidized low-income units,” Jenkins said.

But Dietrick said that any complementary measure still could run a legal risk because of potential interpretations of inconsistencies with local and state laws.