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After about 10 years of wrestling with the idea, the city of San Luis Obispo has approved an ordinance that establishes a rental housing inspection program, by a 3-2 vote.
In a six-hour city council meeting on Tuesday night, the recommendation was formally proposed and the discussion on the rental inspection ordinance drew a packed house with about 120 people and 30 speakers, most of which were against the ordinance.
The ordinance’s final approval will take place at the city council meeting next Tuesday.
Under the rental inspection ordinance, single-family and duplex home rentals will be inspected every three years to ensure they are abiding by health and safety standards.
“I have encountered a lot of people living in sub-standard housing–young people,” San Luis Obispo Mayor Jan Marx said. “When I open the door to their houses, I can see holes in the wall and wires hanging from the ceiling. There’s a lot of fear and intimidation that is experienced by them for the first time living on their own.”
The San Luis Obispo City Council first began discussing the idea of a rental housing inspection program in 2005. It then became part of a Major City Goal in the 2013-2015 Financial Plan and then carried into the 2015-2017 financial plan.
Prior to a December 2014 meeting, staff researched 25 rental inspection programs in California and other major college towns outside California, with much of the focus on case studies of Santa Cruz and Azusa. Overall, the programs were found to have been effective.
In December 2014, the program was evaluated at the City Council Study Session Direction. At that hearing, the council directed staff to return with an ordinance, involving specific requests.
“Our belief is that our proposed ordinance meets all of those objectives that the council set for us back in December,” Community Development Director Derek Johnson said.
Many San Luis Obispo residents who attended the meeting said the nine city ordinances already in place have not been properly pursued; therefore, they do not trust this one will be.
“If you pass the rental inspection ordinance please, make sure that it is adequately funded. Otherwise, it will become another example of growing government interference without tangible results. In other words — another failed city ordinance,” San Luis Obispo resident Linda White said. “Don’t raise our hopes that you really care if you are merely passing a revenue-generating ordinance.”
Attendees of the meeting had an additional array of concerns with the ordinance. Common concerns related to the registration process, fees, a demonstration of potential discrimination and their constitutional rights.
“I believe by inspecting rentals only the city is actually discriminating against those who live in their own homes,” San Luis Obispo County resident and landlord Mary Kimble said. “So if this housing inspection program is indeed for the protection, health, safety and neighborhood wellness of San Luis Obispo, let’s inspect all dwellings for the good of everyone.”
Sixty-two percent of available homes in San Luis Obispo are rentals, according to the 2010 census, as opposed to the statewide average of 43 percent.
According to Johnson, the focus is on single-family and duplex housing rentals as a result of 2013 code enforcement cases and violations within single-family and duplex rentals, which were at a rate nearly six times the rate found in multifamily zones.
The existing Code Enforcement Program is primarily complaint-based and holds limitations on interior inspections.
According to Johnson, not all substandard living situations generate complaints, because tenants may be unaware conditions are substandard, are unaware of legal protections, do not know how to make a complaint, fear increased rent or eviction or may struggle with language barriers or disabilities.
Many speakers at the meeting felt interior inspections were intrusive and an invasion of their Fourth Amendment rights — the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures.
“Is the city ready to defend a class-action lawsuit to the constitutionality of this law?” landlord Brandi Marin said. “It just makes my skin crawl.”
Cal Poly expressed support for the ordinance.
“Cal Poly supports the rental inspection program for our community, as it would serve to address important issues of safety, health and well-being,” Cal Poly representative Stephanie Teaford said. “We see this type of program as a means to enhance health and safety issues for rental properties that are utilized by our faculty, staff and students.”
Johnson and his team presented the recommended ordinance through a slideshow during the meeting.
The ordinance consists of five main sections: (1) the inspection overview, (2) registration, application and implementation, (3) notification of inspection and inspection procedures, (4) inspection and re-inspection and (5) self-certification.
Johnson’s slideshow relayed the following information:
- The inspection involves a chief building official routinely inspecting properties. Unpermitted work, which does not pose a risk to health or safety, will be permitted to be brought up to standards, and if not, shall be removed.
- The owners of residential dwelling units used as rental properties will be required to register units within 60 days from Jan. 1, 2016, or within 30 days from which the unit is acquired. There are penalties and/or fines for failing to register. The annual registration fee will be billed and payable with a business and license fee. Nonpayment of fees will follow an administrative citation process.
- The notification of inspection and inspection procedures involve a building official mailing the notice of inspection as well as an invoice for inspection fee. Upon receipt of payment, the final inspection notice will be issued. Appointment for inspections can be rescheduled once without penalty (with owner’s written request).
- During the inspection, the owner or agent must be present and access must be granted by tenants as well. If violation is found, the inspector issues an inspection report with a certain timeframe to fix the violations. There will be a re-inspection done to ensure violations are corrected. There is a re-inspection fee issued for second re-inspection if violations are not corrected.
- In instances of the owner refusing to provide access for the inspection, he/she will be charged an inspection fee. In instances in which the tenant refuses to provide access, the inspector shall have recourse to every remedy provided by law to secure lawful entry and inspect the premises, including but not limited to securing an inspection warrant.
- Self-certification is available to property owners whose properties are found to be in compliance with initial city inspection, have no prior code enforcement activity within the last three years and have no unpaid code enforcement fines. The process involves the owner applying for the program. The property then enters the self-certification program for a three-year period, if accepted. The property can be removed from the program for the three year cycle should violations occur.
- A building official will mail an owner-inspection checklist 60 days prior to the due date. The owner will perform their own inspection and return the checklist within 45 days of receiving the checklist. Should the owner find deficiencies, needed permits should be obtained to make corrections within 30 days. A final checklist should be submitted within 10 days of corrections. Additionally, 10 percent of units will be subject to random inspection.
“This is within the principal powers of the city and of local municipal government, which is the protection of health and safety, and that’s why these types of programs are enacted both in California and throughout the United States,” Johnson said.
Johnson and his staff presented the ordinance to the council with three recommendations: to adopt the ordinance, to adopt a resolution establishing fees to implement the program and to adopt a resolution establishing an amnesty program.
The amnesty program consists of an amnesty period of one year, from July 1, 2015 to June 30, 2016.
“This period suspends penalty fees on any property owner who voluntarily obtains a building permit to either correct or otherwise permit unpermitted work prior to a scheduled inspection or June 30, 2016, whichever occurs first. Once amnesty period ends, unpermitted work will be treated as a code enforcement case with associated penalties or fines,” Johnson said.
According to Johnson, the program would allow for both interior and exterior building inspections, which would preserve and maintain housing stock and provide for livable and attractive neighborhoods.
“These are severe, critical health and safety issues: substandard electrical conditions, piles of debris and trash. These are all examples of things that we cannot see from the rightaway. So, our code enforcement program submits a complaint and gets the permission from a property owner to go onto the property, but we don’t discover these types of violations,” Johnson said.
The total costs of the program come out to $256,821 for the city’s 2015-16 budget, and $483,553 for the 2016-17 budget.
Possible fees include $65 for annual registration, a $185 inspection fee, $65 for self-certification and a potential re-inspection fee of $65.
Exemptions from the program include mobile home units within mobile home parks regulated by the California Department of Housing and Community Development, HUD Section eight housing units, dwelling units owned or managed by a government agency or residential rental dwelling units that are occupied by a registered owner.
By June 2015, the process will begin with amnesty notifications being sent out. Community out-reach programs and meetings will occur over the months of September through December 2015. Initial inspections will begin April 2016.
“This is about the minimum expectations — what you expect to get as a tenant, like heating, a door that locks or working smoke detectors,” Johnson said.