SLO code enforcers eye landlord housing the poor
May 12, 2014
By JOSH FRIEDMAN
A San Luis Obispo property owner contends that multiple tenants of his are facing the threat of homelessness as a result of unwarranted action city code enforcers are taking against him.
John Holloman, an 84-year-old retired medical doctor who owns a five-acre mountainside property that extends upward from the base of Cerro San Luis Obispo, rents two secondary units on his property at very low rates and has likewise let an impoverished man sleep in a greenhouse on the property.
Following a visit from city inspectors in January, the impoverished man is living on the streets and at least one other tenant on the property is at risk of becoming homeless.
City code enforcers allege that Holloman is violating ordinances by letting others live on his property. Community Development Director Derek Johnson has ordered Holloman to boot a woman living in a mobile home on the property or face fines and other unspecified penalties.
“We’re not trying to displace people,” Johnson said. “Anyone can be better in shelter, but there are federal and state standards for structures that people live in.”
In a January 20 notice, Johnson wrote that Holloman is violating a city ordinance that says structures must comply with state and federal building codes. The notice did not explain, though, what made a mobile home on the property out of compliance.
Instead, Johnson cited and explained another city ordinance prohibiting the use of a recreational vehicle as a dwelling unit.
“The recreational vehicle on the property is being used as a residence,” Johnson wrote. “No recreational vehicle, camper shell or similar device shall be used for living in sleeping quarters except in a lawfully operated mobile home park, travel trailer park or campground.”
Although Johnson insists that the home is an RV, an examination of the property shows that Fran Bonoir, Holloman’s tenant, is living in a mobile home and not an RV. Holloman’s living space also includes a sizable yard and a living room view of most of the city. The mobile home receives city water and uses a septic tank for waste disposal.
Bonoir said she was facing homelessness a few years ago when she struck a deal with Holloman to rent the mobile home at a rate she could afford.
“I would have been homeless,” Bonoir said. “I was ready to take my dog to the pound and go to the shelter.”
Gerard Degroote, a 67-year-old painter, was homeless when Holloman allowed him to move onto the property and live in the greenhouse rent-free. Degroote agreed in exchange to create paintings for Holloman.
In January, San Luis Obispo code enforcers came out to inspect the property after receiving a complaint from a neighbor. Johnson said the neighbor complained about a property right infringement, but he did not specify the allegation. The closest neighbor is about three football fields from the structures.
Four inspectors saw Degroote’s living space and said he belongs in the city’s shelter, along with all other homeless people, Holloman said. Degroote, who had a private living space and a studio on Holloman’s property, said he did not want to go to the homeless shelter.
Johnson’s code violation notice made no mention of Degroote’s living situation, but Holloman still booted the painter from the property out of expectation the city would come down on him, he said. Degroote is now living without a home and has no location to set up his painting easel.
In recent years, the city of San Luis Obispo has pushed impoverished residents to enter the homeless services program provided by the Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo (CAPSLO). Police officers have frequently ticketed those sleeping in vehicles on the streets, and the city council has passed an ordinance prohibiting the homeless from sleeping in vehicles on private property unless they enter CAPSLO’s case management program.
Homeless individuals in case management must turn over the majority of their income to CAPSLO or to a partnering nonprofit.
In January, a San Luis Obispo policeman ticketed Degroote for carrying an opened alcoholic beverage in public.
Commissioner Stephen Sefton then attempted to sentence Degroote to an arrangement with CAPSLO, according to court documents. No CAPSLO representative showed up to the sentencing hearing, though.
Sefton instead sentenced Degroote to a six-month stint on probation. As part of his probation requirements, he must avoid obtaining any tickets for camping in public. If an officer cites Degroote for camping in public, he will face multiple fines.
A third tenant lives on Holloman’s property in a permanent secondary unit. The city alleges that the guest home is unpermitted. Holloman said he bought the parcel as a two-unit property, and an individual was living in the second unit when he made the purchase.
The city has not indicated whether the tenant currently living in the guest home must go if Holloman does not obtain proper permitting.
Holloman said he is willing to work with city but has financial constraints. The retired doctor suffered major blows on real estate investments during the recent recession and nearly lost his home to foreclosure, he said. Holloman needs the money he receives from his tenants in order to stay current with his mortgage payments.
The property owner has already appealed Johnson’s ruling, and the dispute is headed for the city’s construction board of appeals. Ultimately, the city council could decide whether Holloman can continue to allow others to live on his property.