Fines for health and safety and building code violations in San Luis Obispo are about to double under a new city plan to crack down on "slumlords" and compel improvements to rental housing conditions.
On Nov. 21, the SLO City Council signed off on a regulatory scheme to serve as an alternative to the mandatory rental housing inspection program, which was repealed by the council in February amid community backlash.
Before it was cut off by repeal, 915 inspections of single-family and duplex rental units found that one-third of the units contained electrical violations, like exposed wiring; 31 percent didn't have working smoke detectors; and 8 percent had plumbing or piping problems, like leaks.
Heavier-handed enforcement and stronger tenant/landlord education and outreach will be the new tack for the city.
"We need to be able to slam that hammer down," said SLO City Councilmember Carlyn Christianson. "It isn't the majority of landlords that are the problem. ... It's the repeat offenders. We've got a lot of those."
When the City Council finalizes the revisions at a future meeting, fines for code violations like substandard housing will start at $100, increase to $500, and then to $1,000. That will replace the current fine structure of $100, $200, and $500. If a fine isn't paid on time (before 30 days), it will double.
Other violations subject to the higher fines are unpermitted construction, hoarding, garage conversions, vermin infestation, and unsafe occupancy, among others.
The idea is to put more pressure on property owners to take quick action on a violation, according to SLO Chief Building Official Anne Schneider.
"The amount of the citations do not appear to be sufficient to prompt appropriate and timely response," Schneider said. "Citations are frequently unpaid, [and] there's no penalty for not paying it."
Additionally, for landlords and property managers who are already on record as code violators, the city will be able immediately issue fines for violations at other properties, per the new rules. Current city regs require the code enforcement process start from scratch at each unique property, beginning with a notice of violation and then a grace period to remedy before a fine is issued.
Also included in the new plan is a provision for a property's outstanding code cases to get recorded on the property title when it goes up for sale.
"There is a high degree of motivation and usually a financial reward for getting the issue resolved," Schneider said.
SLO also plans to introduce a Safe Housing Program, aimed at providing education and resources to tenants and landlords regarding housing requirements. Part of the program will include access to a new website—info.slocity.org—that enables tenants to search the history of any given property's code cases, inspection reports, and permits.
The Safe Housing Program also proposes to reach out and collaborate with community, tenant, and business groups as well as Cal Poly and Cuesta College.
The SLO City Council members were united in their support for the new enforcement plan, only rejecting the idea of setting up a voluntary inspection program for landlords and tenants to participate in if they so choose.
"It seems like the good landlords will do this, and the landlords who don't care won't do it. So what's the point?" Christianson said.
The City Council expressed strong approval of the increases to the fines. Councilmember Dan Rivoire pointed out what he felt was an imbalance in the city's enforcement of some ordinances as opposed to others.
"If you were walking your dog on Bishop's Peak and you were caught doing that, you might face a $500 fine that you would be assessed right away," Rivoire said. "But if you own a building, and you don't have a heater installed, and someone complains, we still give you a little leeway to work that out on some kind of timeline. I feel really uncomfortable about that."
Also wrapped into the enforcement plan are two ongoing efforts to achieve business licensing compliance as well as compliance with the city's vacation rental ordinance. Only "homestays" are allowed in SLO, and they require a permit as well as payment of transient occupancy taxes.
The city entered into contracts with consultants HdL Companies and Host Compliance Services to conduct proactive enforcement of those ordinances, respectively. Δ
Staff Writer Peter Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.