Obstruction of the street or sidewalk. Litter and rubbish accumulation. Clear corner blockage. These are just a few of the unseemly habits that the city of Santa Cruz will attempt to eradicate through a new housing inspection policy that will come into effect at the beginning of next year.
The policy has sparked controversy among landlords, some of whom say that the ordinance is unfairly targeted toward student housing.
Since passing the ordinance in August, the city council has expressed its intent to focus on overpopulated units and negligent landlords, as well as houses with existing complaints on file. In addition, homeowners will now be expected to register with the city and submit to safety and health inspections, both at a fee.
Harold Griffith, a landlord of three homes on Santa Cruz’s Westside, is suing the city in opposition to its planned implementation of the policy. He said it is illegal because the state constitution of California guarantees all people a right to equality of the law. Targeting rental houses only, he said, is not equal and therefore not legal.
“They have a right to inspect any house that could have structural defects,” Griffith said. “What they don’t have a right to do is to only apply the law on tenant- or student-occupied houses. They set up qualifications that don’t work. It just doesn’t make any sense that you exclude family homes and such.”
Houses that fail to correct a violation upon a second visit from an inspector will be charged for additional inspections and subject to civil penalties.
However, Vice Mayor Ryan Coonerty said in an e-mail that student houses would not necessarily be targeted, just rental properties in general.
“By the beginning of the year, we will begin by focusing on the long list of properties that have complaints filed or are unsafe,” Coonerty said. “We won’t begin inspecting other units for three years. All rental units will be inspected once every five years to ensure that they are safe.”
Deborah Elston of the Westside Neighbors Association welcomes the new policy. She said it is necessary to monitor certain residences that continually elicit complaints.
“It’s a process that is needed in order to be able to track the problem houses,” Elston said. “We need to have faith in healthy housing … it’s a place to start … the ordinance will be improved and worked on as time goes on.”
Coonerty explained that houses flagged with multiple infractions of the city’s Unruly Gathering Ordinance will not be targeted in the enforcement of the home inspection policy.
Rather, the city will focus on “housing that threatens the health and safety of the tenants,” Coonerty said.
Westside landlord Griffith said that with regard to overcrowded student housing, which is the main issue at hand, there is a simple solution.
“The students are the ones who have to decide how many people can live in a house,” Griffith said. “When the state says that it’s OK for a lot of people to live in a house, like the California law does, you have to start thinking for yourself what is proper and what isn’t.”
A third-year UCSC student who lives downtown and preferred to remain anonymous said that she would not mind if the city monitored how her landlord maintains her residence.
“My landlord is absolutely nutso,” she said. “She overcharges us ridiculous amounts for ‘cleaning ladies’ that never come, she stores a bunch of her own stuff all over our backyard. It’s a mess. If this code enforcement would help her get it together, I’m all for it.”
A local certified home inspector, who requested anonymity to protect his business, said he supports Griffith’s suit against the city. In his eight years of experience, he has inspected 2,000 structures in Santa Cruz, Santa Clara and San Benito counties. He said that in this case the city council is overstepping a boundary and is looking for a possible revenue stream from registration and inspection fees.
“I am behind his case because he for sure has validity behind his complaints,” he said. “It’s no secret that the city of Santa Cruz is hurting for money. Santa Cruz City Council has gone too far pushing this objective. It goes against the Constitution.”
Coonerty explained that registration and inspection fees are expected to raise roughly $180,000 in revenue for the city. He said that this money will only be used to pay for and administer the program, and any fines imposed on violators will cover legal costs.
Another student living downtown, who also wished to remain unnamed, said she felt a little uneasy at the prospect of home inspections, even in the name of health and safety.
“I don’t know, I think it would be kind of intruding to have inspectors come in and tell us how we should be living,” she said. “Yeah, it’s a student home, but no, it’s not out of control.”