Will SLO’s ‘nondiscrimination’ housing measure change rentals for the better?

A view of San Luis Obispo from the Irish Hills.
A view of San Luis Obispo from the Irish Hills. lclark@thetribunenews.com

As the deadline to vote on the proposed “nondiscrimination in housing” policy nears in San Luis Obispo, the campaign is heating up.

Supporters of the citizen-initiated Measure B-17 have issued signs, mailers and robocalls to voters implying that the city is implementing a new version of the rental housing inspection program that it repealed in April.

Meanwhile, Mayor Heidi Harmon has called the campaign underhanded, inaccurate and unfair. The City Council, San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce and several local housing-related nonprofits have urged a “no” vote, saying the new law would be detrimental to affordable housing.

A Los Angeles-based government and land-use lawyer who said he has “no stake in this fight” reviewed the ballot initiative and formal arguments for and against the measure at the request of The Tribune. If it passes, he believes it “will most likely create more legal problems for the city than it solves.”

“In the immediate term, it’s hard to tell if it will have any impact on the city at all,” said attorney Daniel F. Freedman, of the firm Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell LLP in an email Wednesday. “But I could certainly see a scenario where the measure could complicate the city’s ability to enforce and implement various housing-related regulations concerning rent control, affordable housing and transient occupancy/short-term rentals (AirBNB).”

As of Wednesday, a little more than 4,000 of the roughly 29,000 registered voters (14 percent) have cast ballots and the county Clerk-Recorder’s Office is receiving on average a couple of hundred ballots a day, said Elaina Cano, assistant county clerk-recorder. Ballots, mailed July 24, must be postmarked by Aug. 22. The measure needs a simple majority to pass.

If adopted, the new law would prohibit any kind of city housing policy that discriminates against people on the basis of factors such as age, gender, sexual identity, disability, income and inability or ability to own a home.

The City Council believes that while the measure may sound good, the new policy would create legal loopholes that could undermine housing programs designed to help poor people, students and seniors.

Freedman said “this strikes me primarily as the byproduct of some very contentious political infighting,” and added that “unfortunately, the measure is very vague and broadly worded, which means that it is hard to predict how this could impact the city.”

Proponents of the measure include two local attorneys and a Los Angeles-area firefighter named Kevin P. Rice, who lives in a rental in San Luis Obispo. He’s been a thorn in the city’s side, battling council members on a variety of complaints from a Brown Act violation to campaign finance malfeasance.

I’ve been a renter for 23 years — I don’t want the city coming into my home.

Measure B-17 fundraiser Kevin P. Rice

Rice was among the most vocal opponents of the city’s Rental Housing Inspection Program, adopted in 2015, implementing mandatory inspections to enforce compliance with health and safety codes, and he actively campaigned against former Mayor Jan Marx on the issue.

Based on constituency feedback, the new City Council (three new members were elected last fall) repealed the inspection program in April, saying it invaded tenant privacy and indirectly increased rents because landlords would pass on costs of housing upgrades to renters.

After that repeal, the citizens’ campaign morphed into an effort to pass the new measure to end a future council’s ability to legislate mandatory rental inspections without voter approval.

“People are sick of this (inspection program), and they don’t want any of it back,” said Rice, who is spearheading fundraising for the initiative. “The sole purpose of the language is not to pull a fast one. It says, ‘Don’t discriminate on people based on the fact that they’re a renter.’”

The City Council can’t campaign as a group against the initiative, because that would be a Brown Act violation, or individually use public resources or time to lobby against it. But council members can campaign individually using their own time and resources.

Someone will challenge those programs (in court) if this measure passes because developers have millions of dollars at stake. Their legal action may not be a philosophical one, but a financial incentive.

Jerry Rioux, Housing Trust Fund

Harmon has put out a newsletter to constituents voicing her opposition, and other council members are reaching out to voters.

“Their campaign is underhanded, inaccurate and unfair,” San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon said. “It speaks to what’s really going on that this measure is purposely confusing and manipulative.”

Harmon said that Councilman Dan Rivoire was blatantly misrepresented in one of the campaign mailers as “working on Rental Housing Inspection Program v2.0!!!” The mailer, which council members say is generally misleading, cites a March 7 meeting in which Rivoire talked about increasing fines through a beefed-up complaint system targeting landlords of substandard housing who are “bad actors,” especially those with repeated healthy and safety code violations. Those fines are issued if formal complaints are made to the city and city code enforcement officials check the homes and find violations, a system that has long been in place.

“That bothers me because Dan Rivoire has opposed the Rental Housing Inspection Program from the beginning,” Harmon said. “He voted against it in 2015.”

The “Yes on B-17” robocalls tell voters it “permanently ends forced home inspections,” “protects your privacy,” and keeps “housing affordable.” It does not say that the rental inspection was already spiked.

Over the past decade, more than 500 affordable homes have been built in San Luis Obispo by developers of housing projects under city inclusionary housing requirements or through an in-lieu fee program. Such housing caps home prices according to low-income buyer salaries.

“Someone will challenge those programs (in court) if this measure passes because developers have millions of dollars at stake,” said Jerry Rioux, executive director of the nonprofit Housing Trust Fund. “Their legal action may not be a philosophical one, but a financial incentive.”

But Rice disputes that the nondiscrimination clause applies to affordable housing requirements in development projects.

“Could some lawyer come in and twist some language at any time? Sure. But it won’t fly in court,” Rice said.

Other groups that are urging a “no” vote are Habitat for Humanity, Peoples’ Self-Help Housing, the Housing Authority of San Luis Obispo and Friends of the Prado Day Center.

Matt Fountain: 805-781-7909, @MattFountain1