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09.01.10

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Phaedra
Photograph by Curtis Cartier
HOME, FREAK HOME: Santa Cruz planners say the new rental inspection fees will allow them to stay on top of unnatural wonders like this one.

Crowded House

The new rental inspection law has lots of fans and lots of foes

By Curtis Cartier


THE DOORS are still boarded shut at the powder blue house on Lee Street. Below a red 'Do Not Enter—Do Not Occupy" sign, a laminated letter from the Santa Cruz Planning Department dated July 28 tells the landlords when they can clean out whatever is left.

Besides the menacing signs and boarded entryways, the building itself is bizarre. The driveway bridge lists to the right, the garage door is not a door but a tarp, and in the back, doors on the second story open into an abyss while several nail-studded wood beams poke north by northwest into the summer air, evidence of someone's intention to build a deck.

It's been two years, according to Santa Cruz Planning Director Juliana Rebagliati, since code enforcement staff got a complaint about gravel spilling out of the house's driveway and seven weeks since Santa Cruz police kicked in the doors and arrested a gaggle of meth dealers they say had set up shop there. If the city's new rental inspection ordinance had been in place, Rebagliati says, the city would have at least known about the shoddy construction at an earlier date.

"With properties that have complaints, they would be inspected annually," she says. "We would have at least been able to get in to the property. The law isn't about crime. But if we come across serious crime issues, we report them."

The ordinance, which was passed unanimously by the Santa Cruz City Council on Aug. 3, and which awaits a second confirmation vote Sept. 7, will make all rental properties in Santa Cruz subject to annual inspections, the cost of which (a $45 annual registration fee, plus $20–$120 per unit) would be paid by landlords, some of whom would qualify to inspect the properties themselves.

The timing is no coincidence. Under the 2008 "landmark contract" between UCSC and Santa Cruz over the school's future growth needs, the city had to pass a rental inspection ordinance by Sept. 12 or the university could back out of its promise to build housing for 450 new students. Rebagliati and other city leaders insist the city has been working on such a law since long before the contract was drawn up.

Once implemented in October, inspectors will be hunting for violations to any of the city's dozens of building and health and safety codes, which cover everything from faulty plumbing and improper roofing to too many people sharing a room.

Mayor Mike Rotkin says the main targets are hundreds of illegal housing units like converted garages and dining rooms that are most prevalent in the university area and Seabright neighborhood, and are often rented to students and low-income residents by landlords looking to maximize profits. The law has the support of police, city planners and many renters. But landlords couldn't despise the law more.

"I'm against this law both as a property manager and as a person who owns rental property," says Kathleen Richards of Portola Property Management. "It's a burden to property owners. It doesn't solve the problem. If they would just enforce the laws that are already in place it would fix the problems. We don't need a whole new government bureaucracy to deal with it."

It's not just landlords who are opposed to the new law. Because many people living in substandard housing can't afford much more than they are paying, the law will almost certainly put people on the street—a point that both planners and councilmembers have conceded.

In the Beach Flats neighborhood, one Latino family that crams 10 aunts, uncles, dads, moms and kids into a two-bedroom house in obvious violation of the city's square-footage-per-person ratio code worries that some family members might have to move back to Mexico.

"This is all we can afford," says a mother in the household who asks to remain anonymous as her son translates.

Even a neighbor of the abandoned Lee Street Mystery House says that while she's glad the meth dealers are gone, she draws the line at giving government officials carte blanche to inspect properties as they see fit.

"I'm just not in favor of government intrusion into private life," says the woman, who asked that her name not be used because she also spoke out against her allegedly drug-dealing neighbors.

But for students like Dylan Sipes, a tall, thin, second-year biochemistry major at UCSC who rents a small town home on Maple Street, any law that improves the housing options for students is most welcome.

"I've seen some pretty shanty places," he says. "I know plenty of people who live in garages. I know one guy who lives in a closet ... yeah, a closet."


Backlogged

Besides fulfilling its end of the bargain with UCSC and "improving the housing stock," as Rebagliati and Rotkin put it, another major reason city leaders are keen on the law is that it would pay for two more code enforcement specialists and a clerk to help whittle down the estimated 400 to 1,000 uninvestigated complaints that have accumulated despite the efforts of the city's two current specialists.

Inside the planning office on Church Street, three massive file cabinets hold hundreds of open complaints in heavy red paper folders, stacks of which are also spread across the cubicle desks of Code Compliance Specialists Linda Garner and Paige White.

"We really have no idea how many open cases there are," admits Rebagliati, opening the heavy-duty cabinets to show the looming workload. "There are a lot of property owners who aren't up to code."

Even though the law has passed and is just waiting for confirmation and implementation, ads for what planners characterize as substandard housing options—tiny shared rooms, converted garages and such—are still easily found on Craigslist. One ad offers a "shared garage space" in Seabright for $500 a month. Another lists a "dining room converted to a bedroom" on Felix Street for $750.

At noon on a Saturday, Robert Rhoades, the tall, ruddy-faced landlord who placed the converted dining room ad, pulls up in a black Lexus to show the room to two students and a parent who showed up for an open house.

"You can't come," he says when he learns I'm a reporter, but not before promising that once the rental inspection law is in place, he'll "pass the cost on to the tenants." Shortly afterward, the ad on Craigslist has been taken down.

Landlords and privacy rights advocates will likely continue to rail against the law. They may even sue the city, as groups in Buffalo and Milwaukee have done after similar laws passed in those cities. If it's able to keep one extra set of drug dealers from practicing carpentry, however, Rotkin says it'll be worth it.

"That house is a disaster," says the mayor. "It's a great example of why we need this law."


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