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Try, try again

Shredder needs to take another look at the Rental Housing Inspection Program and Dan Carpenter

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I love you, Shredder. I really do. Your column makes me smile as you point out the ridiculous in a way that only you can do. My Thursdays just wouldn’t be the same without you.

But last week’s column, “If at first you don’t succeed … ,” wandered over to the wrong side of the snarky/witty divide when you attacked SLO Councilmember Dan Carpenter and his initiative to dismantle the Rental Housing Inspection Program (RHIP). This ordinance mandates the inspection of every rental property in San Luis Obispo. 

Before I get too far, I need to make a confession: I live in a substandard dwelling with my husband, our two sons, our golden retriever, and our cats. Yes, it’s true. In fact, according to the city of SLO, we’ve been declared a public nuisance. And if it weren’t for that fact, I would still be living in a rose-colored world, calling our house a “fixer upper” and watching the DIY Network with big dreams about what it could become. I’d be bragging that we live in the Happiest City in America. Even Oprah says so! And I wouldn’t know much, if anything, about our local politics.

When we bought our property in 2009, it was inspected by licensed professional inspectors and everything came back A-OK. Safe? Check. Healthy? Check. Both houses on the property were rented at the time and we were able to qualify for our mortgage because of the rental income from one house, while we live in the other. 

But in 2014, I learned the city’s standards are different, and we were issued a notice of violation for items dating back to the original construction of our home in the 1920s. Now, we face the possibility of losing our home and our security.

As we’ve navigated this road through city politics I’ve gained a clear understanding of the local political system. Our case aside, I have become extremely disappointed with the state of affairs at City Hall. The flawed policies and procedures work against the citizens and favor city staff’s agenda, which is customarily adopted by the City Council despite public opinion.  

When staff presented the RHIP to City Council, most folks spoke out against it and hundreds showed up to city-sponsored workshops to voice their opposition. When asked for a show of hands, citizens unanimously rejected the ordinance. Carpenter attended those meetings and listened to his constituents 

Nonetheless, Jan Marx, Carlyn Christianson, and John Ashbaugh voted to approve the ordinance, thereby mandating the inspection of rental homes in San Luis Obispo. They chose to ignore the obvious majority of our citizens. That’s not the kind of democracy I grew up believing in. 

Residents suggested options in lieu of this overreaching program. They acknowledged there are valid issues surrounding some rental properties. Some irresponsible landlords do victimize their renters by not fixing problems, and some rentals have true health and safety issues. But the RHIP punishes all rental property owners and all tenants of rental homes. 

There are viable alternatives that weren’t even considered by the city—ways to ensure that housing is safe, tenants are treated fairly, and irresponsible landlords are held accountable. Our citizens need empowerment not paternalism.

It’s not a small thing to mandate the inspection of more than 60 percent of the homes in San Luis Obispo, especially when you are the one occupying that home and you don’t want code enforcement officials intruding into your most personal space, snapping photos of every room including the contents in the cabinets under your sinks. It just feels wrong. 

The City Council majority downplays the consequences and actually claims tenants and landlords are happy about the inspections. I’d invite them to become more engaged with the folks who aren’t so happy. 

Unhappy people like Phil Hurst, founder of SaveSLO.com, a tenant and outspoken opponent of the ordinance, who ironically lost his rental because his elderly landlord couldn’t afford the repairs. Phil loved his rental house and his landlady, but has said goodbye to both. 

Or like some of my friends—a workforce family with an 8-month-old baby who had to move from a cute bungalow downtown to a less desirable neighborhood and pay twice the rent. Their former home was not unsafe or unhealthy, but didn’t stand up to the scrutiny of the city’s standards. They are now considering leaving SLO altogether.

Or the hundreds of property owners who will be required to pay for permits that cover work done on their property decades ago, before they owned the property, and which doesn’t render it truly unsafe or unhealthy.

Business must be good at the Community Development Department!

Marx and Christianson are quick to defend the RHIP by pointing out that they voted for an annual review and will change course if the program isn’t working. Let’s look at how that’s working out:

The first review of the RHIP happened on May 17, 2016. It was barely off the ground because the city had to train code enforcement officers, yet city staff recommended expanding the program to include more rental properties. The public was outraged. Even the original RHIP proponents asked that the expansion be rejected. Yet Marx, Christianson, and Ashbaugh voted to approve it. Unfortunately, this council majority has stopped listening to the voters who elected them and are more aligned with city staff’s agenda. 

In truth, this ordinance has managed to accomplish what opponents warned the council about in their pleas against it. Tenants are being displaced. Homes are being sold to developers who are renting them out for much higher amounts than before. A new apartment development at Kentucky and Bond is renting beds at $1,000 per bed in a shared bedroom or $4,000/month for a two-bedroom apartment. Our city already had a housing crisis, and the RHIP has only made it worse.

The initiative brought about by Carpenter, et al., doesn’t have to be an expensive measure. If 15 percent of the registered voters sign the initiative, City Council can adopt the referendum and dismantle the RHIP without any cost whatsoever.

But if the council chooses to ignore that opportunity, a special election will be held and the voters will have the final say. Their wishes will be evident whether the initiative passes or fails. My bet is that it passes. In truth, this all could have been avoided if City Council had listened to the majority of the citizens in the first place. Carpenter did.

If at first you don’t succeed, … there is an election in less than 60 days. Three City Council seats are up for grabs. I urge the residents of SLO to take a good, hard look at the candidates. Don’t automatically vote for those handpicked and endorsed by a political party. That’s what we’ve been doing, and the same people keep getting elected. This election shouldn’t be about parties or endorsements, but about electing those who will engage with our citizens and listen. Do your homework and vote for leaders who will represent your voice, regardless of political affiliation. Maybe then we can regain a true democracy in SLO. 

Kathie Walker is an accidental activist living in SLO who writes about her family’s adventures with the city’s code enforcement office on her website slorentalinspection.com. Send comments through the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com or send a letter to the editor at letters@newtimesslo.com

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