County of San Mateo

Article by Samantha Weigel from The Daily Journal 

In an effort to protect at-risk renters who find themselves living in unsafe housing as the affordability crisis grinds on, San Mateo County lawmakers are looking to crack down on landlords who fail to maintain their properties.

On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors will consider a new rule mandating landlords provide relocation assistance to tenants who are forced to vacate substandard housing units that should have never been rented in the first place or that were rendered unsafe by an owner failing to keep it to code.

Currently, the county often helps tenants who must leave their homes once inspectors deem them uninhabitable and now officials are hoping this new rule will entice landlords to maintain units or share in the burden. Landlords could face having to pay thousands of dollars to a tenant who must permanently leave their home through no fault of their own.

“We believe firmly that people shouldn’t have to risk their lives to have a roof over their head. And we have in the past run into some situations where people were living in such dangerous situations and we had to red tag the residence. In the past we would try to help those people and try to house them and it would be on the taxpayer’s dime to do that,” said Assistant County Manager Mike Callagy. “We believe that if someone has illegally or unsafely rented a unit that’s unfit, they should be financially responsible to those that have been displaced.”

The amount a landlord has to pay would be based on whether a tenant is permanently or temporarily displaced. For a landlord whose property cannot be brought up to code or made safe within 90 days, they would have to provide three months’ fair-market rent for a similar-sized unit, and up to $1,000 in moving expenses. Depending on the size of the rental, landlords could be on the hook for nearly $10,000 as this year the average two-bedroom in San Mateo County goes for $3,018, according to a county staff report citing data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

For renters who are temporarily displaced and their homes can be brought up to reoccupying within three months, they are entitled to have the landlord reimburse them for reasonable associated costs — meaning the property owner could be liable for paying temporary housing costs or hotel stays as well as moving expenses, Callagy said.

In cases where the landlord doesn’t or cannot pay, the county may step in to provide the tenant with assistance then seek reimbursement from the property owner. The proposed ordinance would only apply to rental units in unincorporated parts of the county, but other cities may be inspired to adopt similar provisions.

County staff worked with stakeholders such as legal aid, the San Mateo County Association of Realtors and the California Apartment Association to craft a reasonable rule targeting the most egregious circumstances. For example, a landlord isn’t on the hook if a tenant caused the code violations. The rule generally only applies to tenants who are forced to leave due to life-safety issues such as no emergency exits or dangerously exposed electrical wires, Callagy said.

“It’s not that we’re running into a lot of these, but we certainly want to create a disincentive to … things that as a society we just can’t accept,” Callagy said.

Board of Supervisors President Don Horsley said the ordinance is part of a varied approach to addressing the regional housing crisis.

“We’ve actually paid a lot more attention now to code enforcement because we know what happens is when people are getting squeezed and rents are going up, they’re doubling up, tripling up and sometimes finding themselves in places that are unsafe,” Horsley said.

San Mateo County’s former sheriff, Horsley recalled cases while in uniform during which he’d wished there were other options for helping people living in hazardous conditions.

“We used to see things like people living in garages with electric cords strung across the ceiling and I never knew what I could do because if you end up displacing them, what’s going to happen to them? That’s one of the reasons I ran for the board [of supervisors], so I could do something about those situations. People should not live in places that aren’t safe,” Horsley said.

He emphasized the ordinance aims to address the extremely unsafe code violations and noted there is some flexibility with the landlord able to appeal an order or request a hearing.

Representatives with the San Mateo County Association of Realtors expressed support for the ordinance that county staff presented to them several months ago.

“We feel strongly that no one in San Mateo County should be paying rent to live in dangerous and uninhabitable conditions. Stories of entire families living in backyard sheds are sad and incredibly disturbing,” SAMCAR’s Government Affairs Director Gina Zari said in an email. “We support the county in taking steps to protect those whose health and safety are at risk due to deplorable conditions.”

Other cities that have similar provisions include Redwood City, East Palo Alto, San Diego, Oakland and Berkley, Callagy noted.

With the recent deadly Ghost Ship fire where dozens died in an Oakland warehouse that had illegally been converted to residences and hosted parties, Horsley said many are acutely aware of the dangers posed by unsafe buildings.

In an effort to discourage illegal or unsafe residences, he pointed to the county’s recent move to promote secondary units. As part of supervisors’ effort to ease the bureaucracy around constructing in-laws, the county is considering an amnesty program for unpermitted units. If approved, those who have existing illegal second units can apply to have them permitted. Owners wouldn’t face penalties and the county would work with them to ensure the properties meet or are brought up to health and safety codes.

“We’re trying every possible way to be able to sustain our community to make sure we aren’t displacing people,” Horsley said. “And that at the same time, we’re providing for their safety as well.”

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The Board of Supervisors meets 9 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 24, at 400 County Center, Redwood City. The ordinance would require a second reading and go into effect 30 days later.

samantha@smdailyjournal.com

(650) 344-5200 ext. 106