SLO to hold special election as city battles to keep inspecting rentals
April 19, 2017
By JOSH FRIEDMAN
Rather than adopting a non-discrimination in housing ordinance and staving off a special election, the San Luis Obispo City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to send the ongoing dispute over a rental inspection program to the voters. The move has raised questions as to whether the city, plagued by upcoming budget shortfalls, is going to undue lengths to raise revenue.
In 2015, the previous city council adopted a rental inspection ordinance that allowed an inspector to enter and examine rental units to determine if the properties were safe and habitable. The ordinance also required landlords to pay a fee to fund the program.
Last month, the council repealed the ordinance after about a third of registered voters in SLO signed a petition calling for it to be repealed and replaced it with a non-discrimination in housing ordinance. The proposed replacement ordinance states the city, “shall not discriminate against any person based upon age, income, disability, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual identity or inability or ability to own a home, by imposing any compulsory program, policy, intrusion or inspection of any ethnicity, sexual identity or status as an owner or renter of such dwelling.”
The non-discrimination ordinance would help safeguard against the city council replacing the previous rental inspection ordinance with another discriminatory rental inspection program.
Acting on the advice of city staff, the council rejected the non-discrimination in housing ordinance at its meeting on Tuesday. A 26-page report drafted by City Attorney Christine Dietrick and Community Development Director Michael Codron argued the non-discrimination in housing ordinance would place the city in a legal bind that would compromise initiatives like affordable housing programs. City staff argued, if the council adopts the non-discrimination ordinance, individuals could sue the city claiming the affordable housing rules discriminate against mid and high-income residents.
Prior to the meeting, attorney Stew Jenkins, one of the leaders of the petition driver, responded to the report with a letter to Mayor Heidi Harmon, stating city staff raised false concerns. By requiring developers to price certain properties for the working poor, the city’s rental inspection program does not discriminate against those otherwise able to afford a home, Jenkins wrote.
Still, during Tuesday’s meeting, council members echoed staff’s fears that the non-discrimination ordinance might prevent affordable housing or rent stabilization programs.
“Those are absolutely false concerns,” Jenkins told CalCoastNews.
San Luis Obispo staff also voiced concern the non-discrimination ordinance would prevent the city from raising $200,000 from landlords from a business tax.
Jenkins said the tax on landlords is passed onto renters, and the city will spend $200,000 anyway on a special election.
“It is all smoke and mirrors and an attempt to undercut the initiative and raise doubt,” Jenkins said. “Every one of these is a false doubt.”
To city staff, though, the loss of revenue associated with the rental inspection program appears to be a major issue. The city is currently facing a projected budget shortfall of more than $5 million in the 2021-2022 fiscal year.
Councilwoman Andy Pease has said staff is worried about losing the money and staffers say they need something in place of the repealed inspection ordinance.
On Tuesday, Pease raised the possibility of creating a competing ballot measure. None of the council members brought up specific plans for a new program, but the council agreed to discuss a possible competing ballot measure at its May 2 meeting.
Previously, Councilman Aaron Gomez said he believes the city needs to replace the controversial rental inspection ordinance with a newly crafted rental inspection program. Hence, the council may consider placing a new rental inspection program on the ballot to compete with the non-discrimination in housing initiative.