Eric Stubben is a mechanical engineering junior and Mustang News conservative columnist. These views do not necessarily reflect the opinion or editorial coverage of Mustang News.
“Did you hear about the new ordinance that City Council passed over break?” my rental home’s gardener asked as I slowly cracked open my front door one sunny afternoon early last week.
“No. Why? What happened?” I responded. I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t exactly keep on top of my San Luis Obispo news over break.
In her usual blunt and honest fashion, the gardener proceeded to tell me about a new rental home inspection ordinance passed by San Luis Obispo City Council last month. We discussed the ordinance and its logistics for a while before parting ways. I remember thinking to myself as I shut the door: “If everything she’s saying is accurate, this ordinance is bad news.”
Within a few minutes, I had a couple local news articles pulled up on my computer while digging around on the city website.
During its meeting on Dec. 16, City Council voted 3-2 “to support a Rental Housing Inspection Program.” At first glance of the ordinance’s title, it’s not all that intimidating. In reality, it’s the details that is scary. The program looks to implement exterior and interior inspections of every rental home in San Luis Obispo controlled by the Community Development Department. Each rental must pass inspection once every three years or its owners may be subjected to heavy fines or even re-inspection fees.
Of course, this program doesn’t come without a cost. While they’re still figuring out kinks in the details, City Council is proposing a $98 fee per rental home per year to fund the inspection program. Essentially, the city wants rental owners to pay an annual fee to allow a government agency representative to enter the rental home to find reasons to fine them.
Whether one agrees that this is a poor ordinance or a much-needed one, the ordinance’s legality sits in the gray area. According to news reports on the issue, many people argue that the ordinance clearly crosses the boundaries of the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment:
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
San Luis Obispo Mayor Jan Marx told The San Luis Obispo Tribune she’s “not worried about the theoretical unconstitutionality of [the ordinance],” noting that there are other areas in the state with similar laws. While it is possible for the city to argue, perhaps correctly, that passing this ordinance gives them a right to search our houses, their ethics must be questioned.
Is searching the interior of people’s homes to assess knick-knack fees really what’s best for the community? At what point does enforcing rental code via interior inspections overstep a renter’s privacy? Is it that big of a deal that a rental house may possibly have had people living in a garage that was converted into a bedroom decades ago? Apparently the City Council thinks so.
It’s also fair to ask about what will happen if a rental does not adhere to the city’s rental code. Will the renters be forced to make quick changes? Most rental contracts don’t allow renters to make significant house modifications without the landlord’s consent. What if a house is found to have more than five people living in it? Will the extra renter be forced to move out immediately? Too many possibilities lie on the table with too many questions left unanswered.
While the city is describing the ordinance as a proactive measure to stop rental offenses before they get too severe, the intent is obvious: The city wants to curb the amount of rental properties within city limits. As of 2010, 62 percent of homes available in San Luis Obispo were listed as rental homes, compared to 43 percent statewide. Being proactive does not include punishing renters and discouraging prospective citizens from renting within city limits. Being proactive includes clearly presenting rental codes and definitions to every renter at the time they sign their rental contract to prevent further issues.
The most disturbing part of this ordinance, however, is that it blatantly targets college students. Cracking down on the number of people living in each house and increasing the rate of rental fines via interior inspections is not conducive to San Luis Obispo’s student community and will raise rental rates. While students are already drowning in loans to pay tuition and fees, raising rental prices only helps to further bury students in their own debt.
As we’ve witnessed multiple times this school year, San Luis Obispo’s city government does not support the living situation of college students. As displayed by their efforts to curb the “Isla Vista phenomenon,” they don’t want us to live in rentals off campus. Yet, they claim the proposed new residence hall is too close to residential neighborhoods. Building code prevents Cal Poly from building taller residence halls, and there’s little land left to build living spaces within a reasonable proximity to the center of campus.
If we build up, we can’t build out, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to move off campus, where does the city want students to go? Away?
Correction: Previously the article incorrectly referred to fees being assessed to the tenants. This has now been edited to reflect that the fees will be assessed to the rental owners.