San Luis Obispo’s rental housing inspection program kicked off in January and 973 rental properties — out of an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 in the city covered by the program — have been registered to date.
Beginning in April, a city inspector will start ticking off a list of properties, looking to make sure that rental units are safe and habitable and requiring property owners to remove any work done without a permit that can’t be brought up to code.
At the same time, some property owners and tenants are pushing the San Luis Obispo City Council to stop an inspection program they consider discriminatory, invasive and unnecessary.
The council voted 3-2 last spring to create the rental inspection program. More recently, a website, SaveSLO.com, has been created, a petition has been circulated and dozens of upset property owners have packed city informational meetings to voice their opposition.
“I’m looking at this, and this is so punitive,” property owner and San Luis Obispo resident Sylvia Drucker said at a heated Thursday night meeting that drew more than 100 people. “You’re going to me, as someone who rents a property, as if I’m probably doing something wrong.”
Some opponents argue that the program only pads the city’s pockets, puts a financial burden on landlords that will be passed on to tenants, violates Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure, and will result in fewer available rentals in housing-hungry San Luis Obispo.
“The citizens (voters) of San Luis Obispo are outraged, and won’t allow our community to be oppressed by this law,” reads a petition posted on https://change.org, with more than 400 supporters as of Sunday. “City council members in support of this law are putting their political career in jeopardy. Rescind the law, or the voters will elect new city council members that will.”
Councilman Dan Carpenter, who, along with Councilman Dan Rivoire, voted against the program in May 2015, wrote a comment on the petition: “One other council member and myself opposed this invasive and onerous ordinance when it came before council last year. I urge you to contact the 3 who supported it [(Mayor Jan) Marx, (Councilman John) Ashbaugh, & (Councilwoman Carlyn) Christianson] and convey your disappointment with this overreach of authority.”
At previous meetings, those in support of the program spoke of deteriorating neighborhoods where landlords do little to keep up their properties and said the program would improve and maintain better-quality rental housing. No supporters spoke out Thursday.
This is a program that the City Council approved to make sure our rental residents are living in a safe environment. That is the goal of the program.
San Luis Obispo Community Development Director Michael Codron
Under the program, single-family homes, duplexes and secondary dwelling units (also known as “granny units”) that are rented would be subjected to routine city inspections every three years to make sure they conform to health and safety standards — roofs in good repair, unbroken windows with screens in good condition, functional electrical outlets, working smoke detectors, sinks and faucets that don’t leak, and doors equipped with proper locks and latches.
Apartments are inspected by the fire department and are not included in the program. Nor are mobile homes, units rented under the federal Section 8 program, dwelling units owned or managed by a government agency, owner-occupied units and second homes that are not rented.
The annual fire department inspections of apartments, required by the California Health and Safety Code, mainly examine the exterior of properties and are focused on fire-related concerns such as fire sprinklers or hazardous materials on the property, Fire Marshal Roger Maggio said.
The inspections don’t extend to the interior of units unless fire inspectors suspect there might be a code enforcement violation, in which case they alert the city’s community development staff, who would then attempt to do an inspection.
Some property owners took issue with the difference, noting that inspections under the rental program will be much more thorough than the apartment inspections.
Code Enforcement Supervisor Teresa Purrington said the program has focused on single-family and duplex homes in part because the city receives far more complaints for those units than they do for apartment complexes.
A tenant may deny the city permission to enter a unit, but if an inspector is denied entry, the city can obtain an inspection warrant from San Luis Obispo Superior Court. That process became a major issue during Thursday’s discussion.
Learn more Two workshops on SLO’s rental housing inspection program are scheduled for 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Feb. 24 and March 7 at the San Luis Obispo City-County Library community room, 995 Palm St. Free registration is required. To register or to learn more about the program, go to www.slocity.org/rentalhousing. View an inspection checklist under “forms and documents” on the website. Code Enforcement Supervisor Teresa Purrington is available for small-group meetings. Call the program hotline at (805) 594-8189.
“You are not in violation if the tenant does not allow entrance,” Purrington told property owners gathered Thursday, “but we will use all legal means to get into the unit.”
When asked by an attendee what standard of proof is required to get into a unit, she said: “A reasonable suspicion that there is a violation; also, the fact that you’re denying us access, and this is an ordinance that can be used for that.”
To that, a man in the audience was heard murmuring: “Excuse me, this is Hitler in World War II.”
Levi Seligman, who owns several properties in the city, said in a telephone interview that he plans to “encourage every single tenant that I have and any renter or tenant that I meet to never sign a document that allows a government official to inspect your property. If all the tenants don’t sign that, they’re going to need 5,000 warrants.”
The creator of the SaveSLO website is a renter who said he was worried that publishing his name would make him and his rental property a target of the program. He said he’s concerned that his home and the homes rented by his friends will all fail inspections, rendering them homeless, and added that his landlord plans to sell the house to avoid the program.
“Right off the bat, unless your house is one of those gorgeous houses on Broad and Buchon (streets), you’re done,” he said. “You walk up to a house that’s very similar to mine, and the first thing you’ll see is there’s no screens on the windows — you’ve already failed. Your house looks shabby, your renters are on the street, not our problem.”
But Purrington said the program’s goal is not to displace renters. Only problems that pose an immediate life-safety threat — such as a tenant sleeping in a converted garage next to a water heater — could require a tenant to move out until the issue is addressed.
“The program is not to reduce units and kick people out,” she said. “It’s just to ensure that they (landlords) are not putting themselves or someone else in danger.”
But renters could be displaced if they are living in illegally built units that cannot be brought up to code and are required to be removed.
Cal Poly spokesman Matt Lazier said the university will work with any displaced students to provide on-campus housing permanently or temporarily while a student looks for another place to live.
All of these people living in these unsafe houses, basically they’re going to be on the street.
A San Luis Obispo renter and creator of SaveSLO.com
Of the more than 12,000 rental units in the city, an estimated 4,660 are included in the new inspection program. City officials hope to inspect all of the units in three years, with about 380 inspections this year as the program ramps up. A handful of landlords have already requested inspections “just to get it done,” Purrington said.
The city has also received 13 amnesty applications so far from property owners seeking a one-year reprieve from code enforcement fines or penalties while they try to legalize unpermitted work or dwelling units.
The program is designed to pay for itself through fees charged to landlords, but some property owners said the program will “end up on the backs of tenants,” as one woman said at Thursday’s informational meeting.
“I don’t want to minimize the cost of the program,”Community Development Director Michael Codron replied. “If you do have projects that have to be completed as a result there are additional costs and that could cause property owners to raise rent.”
“It will,” someone else hollered out.
The rental inspection program will return to the San Luis Obispo City Council for review in May.
“We will bring up a lot of the comments made and concerns to see if there are ways we can modify or change things to make it a better program, but we had to start somewhere,” Purrington said.
The program fees for landlords are $380 every three years (or $10.50 a month), or $260 ($7.22 a month) every three years for landlords who self-certify after their rental home passes an initial inspection.
The program is expected to cost $256,821 this fiscal year ending June 30, with $200,842 of that going toward salaries and benefits for three employees: a code enforcement supervisor, an administrative assistant and a rental housing inspector who is expected to be hired next month, according to a staff report presented to the council last May.
With another inspector hired in the 2016-17 fiscal year, the staffing costs will increase to $414,874, with an overall program cost of $483,553. The program is expected to run with a deficit the first two years.