SLO should reject effort to repeal rental inspection program

Illegal garage conversion is among the code violations San Luis Obispo’s rental inspection program aims to prevent.
Illegal garage conversion is among the code violations San Luis Obispo’s rental inspection program aims to prevent.

The dispute over San Luis Obispo’s rental inspection program is one of those classic conflicts between personal rights and the collective good.

The core question is: How much of a role should government have in looking out for the well-being of residents whose living conditions may be vulnerable to abuse because they don’t own their own homes?

The issue was pushed back to the forefront last week when Councilman Dan Carpenter launched an effort to repeal the program, which was adopted by the City Council on a 3-2 vote in May 2015 and subjects rental homes to inspections every three years to ensure properties are up to code.

The program is supported by Mayor Jan Marx and council members Carlyn Christianson and John Ashbaugh, who are worried that landlords may ignore proper maintenance or cram tenants into converted lofts and garages, and that tenants may be deterred from blowing the whistle in a town where affordable housing is scarce.

On the other side are Carpenter and local attorneys Stew Jenkins and Dan Knight, who maintain these inspections are unconstitutional and violate not one but three amendments in the Bill of Rights.

Carpenter claims the program discriminates against renters because the inspections don’t apply to owner-occupied homes.

He goes so far as to say it’s no different than discriminating by race or gender, as if home ownership vs. renting is somehow a reasonable parallel to the fight for civil and women’s rights. And he thinks an anonymous reporting system is regulation enough to keep wannabe slumlords in check.

Oh please, Councilman.

While landlords and tenants can each individually gain from skirting the rules, doing so is a self-serving act by both parties that diminishes our community as a whole.

It’s the kind of unaccountable, laissez-faire behavior that doesn’t solve problems. It only allows them to perpetuate and fester in the shadows. Frankly, it makes it easier not to work for more decent, affordable living options when a lack of oversight encourages a black market of subpar housing.

As for that ludicrous comparison to race and gender rights, let’s not pretend that having inspectors come in to make sure some student isn’t living in a broom closet with no working plumbing is somehow akin to segregation or women’s suffrage.

They aren’t there to poke around in your underwear drawer, mentioning your unmentionables in their reports. They’re there to flip the light switches and look for rats.

Or you could think of it this way: These tenants are essentially customers of their landlords, and these homes and apartments are, to a certain extent, the owners’ places of business.

That makes them vulnerable to abuse in a way owner-occupied homes never can be, because in that case, owner and tenant are one and the same, and any substandard conditions are self-inflicted.

Finally, it’s not like inspecting living conditions is some kind of unprecedented phenomenon.

You rent a freshman dorm room at Cal Poly and you’ll have resident advisers knocking on your door snooping around for booze on a near nightly basis.

I don’t see anyone jumping up and down about invasions of their privacy.

To qualify the issue for a public vote, Carpenter and his supporters will need to gather signatures from at least 15 percent of the city’s registered voters. At that point, they can either twist the council’s arm into repealing the program or force it to call a special election, wasting taxpayer dollars.

Neither of those are worthwhile options.

So if someone accosts you at the supermarket looking for a signature on this issue, send them packing.

We are a better society when we collectively look out for each other’s well-being rather than placing irrational, selfish concerns above the good of the whole.