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SLO ratchets up inspection of rental homes despite opposition

An illegal garage conversion in San Luis Obispo. The photo was included in a presentation made last year to the City Council illustrating health and safety concerns in rental properties in the city.
An illegal garage conversion in San Luis Obispo. The photo was included in a presentation made last year to the City Council illustrating health and safety concerns in rental properties in the city.

San Luis Obispo will begin inspecting rental homes more aggressively and extend an amnesty period after a majority of the City Council endorsed the program over the protest of more than 20 speakers as part of an update on its progress.

One year after adopting the Rental Housing Inspection Program last May, the council heard a lengthy critique from opponents who said the program unnecessarily intrudes on tenant privacy and charges inspection fees that landlords will pass on to renters. But no official vote was taken on whether to end it, with three of the five council members expressing their continued support.

Under the program, rental homes in San Luis Obispo are subject to routine inspections on a three-year cycle to make sure that they’re conforming to health and safety standards.

Thus far, just seven homes have been inspected, according to the city staff’s one-year update, with about 380 checks projected to take place by June 30.

Of those assessed, five passed inspection, one needed minor fixes and one required a building permit.

There’s an extremely tight rental market here. And the result is that people who occupy substandard units are generally terribly intimidated.

John Ashbaugh, city councilman

About 4,500 letters were sent out in January, when the program launched, to known and assumed rental properties, notifying them of upcoming inspections.

To date, 3,130 units have registered for the program, 714 have been exempted, 44 have filed for amnesty and 1,644 did not respond. That total exceeds the number of letters sent out by about 1,000 because some parcels have more than one unit and some property owners registered properties that were not on the city’s mailing list.

The program is designed to protect renters from unsafe conditions such as faulty wiring, blocked entry doors, leaky roofs and malfunctioning smoke detectors, among other health, safety and municipal code violations.

In supporting the program, Councilman John Ashbaugh said that waiting for people to report violations through code enforcement channels likely won’t solve substandard housing problems because a competitive rental market discourages renters from speaking up.

“There’s an extremely tight rental market here,” Ashbaugh said. “And the result is that people who occupy substandard units are generally terribly intimidated.”

Also, passing inspection fee costs on to tenants is against the law, and landlords that do so should be held accountable, Mayor Jan Marx said.

However, program opponents argued the law will be circumvented by landlords who raise housing costs because of the fees, who may give an alternate explanation for rent increases.

The inspection program includes a $65 annual registration fee, a $185 inspection fee and an additional $65 for a reinspection of a home that doesn’t pass standards after two initial inspections.

“This is a massive government overreach and a Fourth Amendment violation,” said David Baldwin, a San Luis Obispo rental property owner. “You have personally raised rents for tenants in the city. If you reverse this decision, you will lower rents for tenants.”

Tenants have the right to deny entry to the city for an inspection, which some have said they’ll do, according to commenters at the meeting and letters submitted to the city. However, mechanisms are in place at the city to inspect properties eventually, including by communicating with landlords to access units once renters have left the units.

Councilmen Dan Carpenter and Dan Rivoire called for a halt to the program, supporting the existing code enforcement program that relies on reported violations.

This is a massive government overreach and a Fourth Amendment violation. You have personally raised rents for tenants in the city. If you reverse this decision, you will lower rents for tenants.

David Baldwin, property owner

The council voted 3-2, with Carpenter and Rivoire dissenting, to extend an amnesty period for six months to Jan. 13, 2017, to allow building owners time to bring illegal units up to code or apply for building permits for work done without permits.

The council also clarified, through its vote, that the program applies to all single-family, duplex and second-dwelling rental units, regardless of their zoning.

About two-thirds of the city’s single-family residences are now rentals, Marx said.

“Because of the fact that rents have been rising since 2003, and because of the shortage of housing, we have a terrible market situation,” Marx said. “Tenants, instead of standing up for themselves, because they’re really being exploited in many ways, they’re hanging onto status quo. ... My hope is that this program turns things around and makes them better.”

Members of the group SLO U40 representing the interests of those in San Luis Obispo under the age of 40, who make up half of the city’s population, suggested that staff members compile such data as: the number of renters being displaced from homes while repairs are being made; average rents; and rent changes year-over-year. That’s to gauge the program’s impacts on housing availability and rent.

“(Data) will empower council with the information you need to decide how this program should change when it comes up for review again,” SLO U40 wrote in a letter to the council.

The city will be measuring those metrics and including them as part of its quarterly reports. Staff members will seek an information source on the market-related data because the city doesn’t collect that on its own, said Michael Codron, the city’s community development director.

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