On Tuesday, the Davis City Council listened to a diverse group of people (students, renters, landlords, neighborhood reps, and activists) discuss problems with the lack of a renter’s ordinance in Davis. While some on the council pushed for a more expansive policy, the council unanimously supported Option 1 of the staff recommendation to move forward new regulations.
Option 1 was to develop “a one-stop rental resource ordinance to include an inspection program.” It also included developing a resources website; assistance from ASUCD with updating the model lease; a requirement for all rental units to be registered with the city; emergency contact information for a local contact within 60 miles of Davis with full authority to act on behalf of the owner; and a new fee that would cover, among other things, mediation services.
The city would also implement a rental inspection program to ensure all units are safe and habitable, with random audits and a complaint-based inspection program.
During their discussion, Councilmember Rochelle Swanson warned of unintended consequences. For instance, regarding the idea that “this would pay for itself,” she warned that, in a tight market such as Davis, everything will get passed on to the renters.
She argued, “If this is our values… the city needs to put some skin in the game.” She suggested that the $25 charge that the city is already doing “should not just be getting lost in the general fund, that should be going into programs like this one.” She expressed disappointment that it’s not.
Like many others, Ms. Swanson, who was a renter for ten years, had her own horror story with a property owner when she was in law school. So she said she has been on all sides of the issue and hopes we can get an ordinance in the next few months.
She wants to see a confidential complaint-based program where landlords, tenants, and neighbors can file complaints confidentially to trigger an inspection. She thinks starting off with inspections out of the gate will create a huge new program, therefore she argued for it to be complaint-based at the start.
“I think having us go from 0 to 200 invites us to have unintended consequences,” she said. Instead, she wanted to see a pilot program and a task force. “When it comes back to us I’d like to see a task force with stakeholders – and predominantly community based stakeholders.”
Councilmember Brett Lee scoffed at the notion that fees would be “burdensome” and be passed onto the renters. He pointed out even a $100 fee, to a landlord with 100 units, being passed on to the renters amounts to a dollar per year apiece. “So go ahead, raise the rent,” he said. “It will be 20 cents per unit, a month. I think any renter in Davis would be willing to pay the twenty cents to have access to mediation services…”
He noted that “most of the actors are good actors,” “most of the rental housing is in good condition,” which leads people to question the need for inspection. Councilmember Lee argued, “The city needs a presumptive right to inspect,” he said. That allows the city to avoid having to go to Yolo County “and show probable cause.” He said, “This is a burdensome thing to have to do when many of us know that there’s an issue.”
He said that the reason the fees are low “is that we don’t want to just do blanket inspections, we want to really have the threat of inspection… there so that most of the actors will continue to be good actors, some of the people on the fence will actually invest in their properties and bring them up to standards and, for the people who don’t, there will be fines that will help cover the inspection costs.”
“The idea is not to charge everybody a large chunk of money to subsidize the bad actors,” he said. “The good actors don’t want to be penalized – they’re doing a good job… I agree, we should focus on the bad actors.”
Councilmember Lucas Frerichs sees this as a citywide problem and shared his own horror story about renting and losing his security deposit when he left his apartment spotless. “That’s something that’s been bothersome over the years,” he said. Others had earlier shared that they had invested in professional cleaning services and in some cases even that wasn’t enough to get the security deposit back. “That’s more representative than people sort of give credit to,” he added.
“I think the local emergency contact is essential,” he said, although some had expressed concerns that 60 miles away was too far in a true emergency.
He also pushed for investing in code enforcement as a critical step to make sure that these rules are followed.
“I’m very supportive of the direction we’re headed in,” he said, noting that he looks forward to the refinements that will come before final passage.
Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis said that, because Davis is a desirable place to live, the reality is that these problems are not the one problem of one particular group. He said, “But it does lead to the market failures that have been discussed.”
“These are market failures – when you hear people talking about fear of not complaining so they won’t get kicked out of their place, there’s a failure.” He said even if the university comes through with housing, Measure A passes, Sterling and others come on line, “these are going to continue to be enormous problems in our community because our population continues to grow and people want to live here.”
He said he fully supports the direction, but “the thing I’m nervous about is that we’re underfunding it, the scale of it is not going to be able to accomplish what we need.”
The mayor pro tem said “we have a relatively small group of bad actors,” and that leads him to question how deeply they need to sample to capture that, and whether a complaint-based process is enough.
Robb Davis said he understood that everyone “wanted to get going,” but “I don’t want us to come back in a little while and say it’s not really working.”
The Sacramento Housing Alliance sent in a letter supporting Option 1, but was also concerned about some of the shortcomings of the approach.
They wrote: “An effective ordinance that will ensure that 100% of the rental housing stock in the City is healthy and meets basic housing codes must include:
- Mandatory initial City inspections of ALL rental properties;
- A ‘cost to run program’ based fee on all rental units to ensure the program’s viability and sustainability;
- An audit program that requires annual inspections of a portion of any class of rental housing properties that becomes exempt from periodic inspections after the initial round of inspections;
- An annual inspection of all properties that fail initial inspections;
- Inspection of any rental housing property that changes ownership.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting