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Repeal and replace: SLO city halts rental inspection program, will consider alternate enforcement strategies 

San Luis Obispo inspected 915 rental units in the nine-month life of the Rental Housing Inspection Program (RHIP).

But the city’s done with that; it won’t inspect one more.

On Feb. 16, the SLO City Council voted unanimously to place a moratorium on any new housing inspections connected to the RHIP and directed city staff to bring back a future agenda item to repeal the ordinance.

The vote followed a heated four-hour town hall meeting in the Veterans Hall where the majority of attendees strongly advocated for the City Council to end the program, which mandates inspections every three years for single-family rental homes and duplexes to enforce health and safety code compliance.

In paving the way for its repeal, the City Council’s three new members—Mayor Heidi Harmon and council members Andy Pease and Aaron Gomez—made good on what had effectively become a campaign promise in their runs to join the council in 2016.

“It’s ‘repeal and replace’ basically,” SLO Mayor Heidi Harmon told New Times,and to put a stay on any new rental inspections. It didn’t make sense to continue implementing the program.”

The City Council also asked staff to agendize a discussion regarding alternative strategies to address unsafe, dilapidated, or unpermitted rental dwellings in the city. The council is expected to vote on the repeal and discuss future plans at its March 7 meeting.

“The council wants to make sure we have a non-invasive program that protects the rights of tenants while being more precise with our enforcement efforts,” SLO City Councilmember Dan Rivoire told New Times.

The vote happened on the same day that opponents of the RHIP submitted a petition to City Hall that reportedly has more than 7,000 registered voter signatures. Launched last year by former SLO City Councilmember Dan Carpenter, the petition demands that the City Council repeal the law and replace it with a “non-discrimination in housing” clause. If the signatures are validated by the SLO County Elections Office, which officials say would take up to 30 days, the City Council would be forced to either adopt the “repeal and replace,” or put the initiative up for a special election.

Not-so-clean cut

As of Jan. 31, about three-fourths (3,329) of the rental units subject to the RHIP had registered with the city.

Of the 915 units that had inspections, 62 percent passed (16 percent after one inspection, 46 percent after two inspections) while 37 percent had outstanding corrections and/or missing permits for construction.

Michael Codron, the city’s community development director, told New Times that already-inspected rental properties with outstanding corrections or missing building permits would continue to be held responsible for completing that work, despite the City Council’s Feb. 16 decision.

He also said landlords who registered in the program would not be refunded the $65 registration fee or $185 per unit inspection fee, if the inspection(s) took place. If a landlord paid for a future inspection that would be canceled, he or she would be refunded, Codron said.

The RHIP’s overall impact on property owners, tenants, and the rental housing market has been a source of debate in the community since the ordinance was passed. While city officials maintain that the RHIP hasn’t directly displaced any tenants, Codron admitted that there were some cases where a tenant living in a room deemed unsafe chose to find new housing—though other rooms in the house were safe to occupy, Codron said.

“We haven’t red-tagged any property following a rental inspection, but there have been rooms that have been declared unsafe as sleeping rooms,” Codron said.

Both landlords and tenants have complained about the financial burdens of the program.

The city said 147 inspected units have significant outstanding violations requiring a permit. In examples provided to New Times, permit costs included $69 for electrical outlets, $113 for a water heater violation, $360.50 for an unpermitted bathroom, and $526 for demolishing an unpermitted kitchenette.

While the RHIP was widely criticized as invasive and too broad sweeping, the inspections that did take place revealed systematic deficiencies in the city’s rental housing stock.

One-third of the 915 inspections found electrical violations, such exposed wiring or missing electrical outlets. Thirty-one percent of units were missing smoke detectors, and 28 percent lacked carbon-monoxide detectors. Twenty-seven percent had improperly strapped water heaters and 8 percent had plumbing or piping problems, like leaks.

Outside the RHIP, the city has launched 57 code cases since August 2014 based on tenant complaints, according to records obtained by New Times.

Sandy Rowley, chairperson of Residents for Quality Neighborhoods (RQN), the SLO neighborhood group of 120 households that’s advocated for a city inspection program since 2005, told New Times she wasn’t surprised at the council’s new direction given the public sentiment, but she expressed disappointment about the potential consequences for the city’s housing.

“As far as going forward, the problem still exists,” Rowley said. “If [the city had] done something in 2005, we wouldn’t be where we are now.”

Concerns about unsafe housing conditions and landlord abuse continue to be at the forefront of many community members’ minds. Councilmember Rivoire noted that the fervent opposition to the program chilled some renters’ willingness to share their stories at the Feb. 16 town hall.

“I talked to a young family at the meeting who’s dealing with a bad rental and felt a little bit out of place,” Rivoire said. “They didn’t feel like their place was well-represented and were silenced by tone of voice by some.”

The City Council will discuss alternative options to the RHIP, such as a mailer to tenants informing them of their rights and how to report unsafe conditions, a 311-type phone line for tenants, a voluntary inspection program similar to the city of Berkeley’s, and an expanded education program for tenant support, among other ideas.

Rowley, speaking for herself and not RQN, said she hoped the city would do more proactive enforcement in rental-dominated neighborhoods, looking for external violations that could serve as probable cause for an inspection.

Codron added that without mandatory inspections, the city might need to consider beefing up its enforcement approach to get results.

“The city’s always been focused on getting compliance [from property owners]. It’s pretty expensive to approach code enforcement that way,” Codron said. “If we’re dealing with a property owner who doesn’t have an intent or financial incentive to correct those issues, then those cases can drag out for a really long time. What we may need to look more closely at is an environment where the fines are higher and more immediate as a greater degree of deterrence.”

You can reach Staff Writer Peter Johnson at pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.

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