Council Unanimously Moves Forward Toward Rental Ordinance


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

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Marina Kalugin

    not a fan of new fees…..and am interested in more details though…

    in Sac I helped my son buy a small fixer some years ago…and was continually harrassed to have the annual rental inspection done..  or send in mounds of paperwork proving it was not  a rental……HUH?   it was/is a family home…no rental, though, it would have been nice to have someone help with expenses….

    that is MY take on the Sacramento rental housing alliance…

    but Sac was truly the land of absentee and slum landlords…..or at least some….unlike Davis…

  2. SODA

    I may have my information wrong, but after reading this and listening to the discussion Tuesaday night, I am more in favor of the fees and ordinance concentrate on complaints by renters than mandatory inspections of all single family rentals. I too have an old story of ‘no deposit returned’ tho not in Davis. I pursued and finally received the entire deposit but it was just a way for an absent landlord to easily (he thought) collect extra monies. When several students rent, I would imagine they don’t think to take pix of the clean apt, do the walk through before renting and pursue the security/cleaning deposit afterwards.  Using these fees for an efficient complaint process would be a good idea.

    1. South of Davis

      SODA wrote:

      > I am more in favor of the fees and ordinance concentrate on complaints

      My guess is that the city will just take the fees and not do anything…

      A friend bought a home on Pole Line near Nugget about 10 years ago down from a home with an overgrown lawn, a junk car in the driveway and trash and mail all over the front yard (that blows down to his yard).

      He has made multiple formal complaints (in writing giving his name) to the city over the years, but nothing has changed and the city never fined the homeowner for breaking the law about the abandoned car, the overgrown yard and for never getting their mail so the wind blows the junk mail all over.

      I just drove by yesterday (pulling out of the Nugget/CVS lot) and after 10 years, 10+ letters and begging the city to do something the home still has the junk car in the driveway (that has not moved in 10+ years) the overgrown law and trash all over the yard…

      P.S. Someone else on the same block illegally converted their garage in to two bedrooms to rent to seven students and despite the letters the city has done nothing…

  3. Marina Kalugin

    all of my family stories include me or sons fronting the money for all roommates and then the roommates skipping out and not doing anything to clean…and so forth….on a sublet the person begged that they didn’t have the money and then didn’t clean and skipped……never any issues with landlords…

    we were not even told and it was an on-campus apartment sublet….my son would have gone back to clean….

    it was too late and that money we would have received as it was UCD as the landlord…

  4. Michael Harrington

    I don’t think the problems are widespread.  It would be far easier and cheaper to have a renters legal clinic 2x a month near campus, and renters with issues can come in and get free legal and “problem solving” advice.  The rules and regulations are already in place, and a meritorious case should prevail.   Besides, I think ASUCD has a service already.

    I just view this program as one created by planning staff, to fund planning staff, and to add an expensive new program to fill the void left when the third and last of the 3 exterior Hail Mary projects are knocked down on June 7.

    I am a grad from Sociology, UCD, and “complex organizations” is a part of that discipline.  The organization creates the need for itself.  Staff getting the CC to adopt this program and put into local code  is pretty much creating a printing press to print money for the organization.

    I’d be interested in getting Professor John Lofland’s take on this issue. (Retired, UCD Sociology Dept.)

    1. David Greenwald

      The article specifically quotes council saying there are just a few bad actors, but the stories are pervasive and my understanding is that Davis is the only college town without some sort of ordinance.

    2. ryankelly

      It is my understanding that it is renters that are appealing for relief, not City staff.  They don’t want advice.  They want a neutral person to come in, verify the problem, and have ability to force repairs or allow the tenants out of their lease due to in-habitability of the residence.  The community wants landlords to follow the rules and not create mini-dorms in residential neighborhoods by converting living rooms and garages into bedrooms.  There are a few bad apples in Davis.  Only these people will be annoyed by the increased oversight.

  5. Barack Palin

    I read somewhere where this ordinance will result in city hall hiring a couple of new employees.  So at let’s say at $100,000 each all in, pay and all benies, we’re looking at $200,000 a year cost.  Now when you add that to all the other costs that will be associated with the ordinance are the fees going to pay for the program?  Will the city be raising fees in the future to cover costs?

  6. The Pugilist

    Brett Lee’s comment about passing the fees on to the renters nails it, are they really going to add $1 or $2 to people’s monthly rent?  Big deal?

  7. nameless

    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.”

    A random audit system without a warrant may run afoul of the 4th Amendment against unreasonable searches and seizures.


    In part, the judge’s decision states: “Judge Susan Dlott, of the Western Division of the Southern District of Ohio, held as follows:

    “[T]he Court finds that the Portsmouth [Rental Dwelling Code] violates the Fourth Amendment insofar as it authorizes warrantless administrative inspections. It is undisputed that the [Rental Dwelling Code] affords no warrant procedure or other mechanism for precompliance review . . . the owners and/or tenants of rental properties in Portsmouth are thus faced with the choice of consenting to the warrantless inspection or facing criminal charges, a result the Supreme Court has expressly disavowed under the Fourth Amendment.”

    “The inspections are also significantly intrusive. As the Supreme Court has noted, the ‘physical entry of the home is the chief evil against which the wording of the Fourth Amendment is directed.’

    As much as I am sympathetic to renters as well a neighbors of rentals and their issues surrounding bad landlords, the city must step carefully to make sure any ordinance enacted does not run afoul of the U.S. Constitution.  A complaint based system makes sense, in that the complaining tenant would have no reason not to invite the city in to do an inspection.

    Secondly, is the city enforcing the laws they have on the books currently?  From the dais Councilmember Frierichs conceded the city did not do much of anything about the offending home that was converted into a mini-dorm, other than to make the landlord take down the walls.  Scuttlebutt in town is that the walls have gone right back up.  Why wasn’t this landlord fined for violating zoning codes, so there was no incentive to do something like that again?

    Nor is it fair to single out a landlord who owns and rents out one single property and have them pay a $25 fee to cover a new program, while a landlord who owns multiple properties (upwards of 400 rentals) pays the same $25.  Any fee charged needs to be equitable in its application.

    While the sentiments of the City Council members is laudable, there needs to be some very careful thought put into how such a program will be implemented.  And I have to wonder if just aggressively enforcing the laws we have on the books now, coupled with a resource center aggrieved tenants can access to get information on their legal rights wouldn’t be a good pilot program to start with.

    1. The Pugilist

      While I think the council seems to be moving away from a random system, as I understood it they would require a registration and a condition of the registration would be to authorize random audits.  That would avoid the legal problem you are rightly pointing out – it’s like an implied consent law for drunk driving.

      1. nameless

        From the article:

        “Nevertheless, Ohio cities had vigorously sought to collect licensing fees from area landlords, and the warrantless searches served as the lynchpin to each of these goals. Ordinances such as Portsmouth’s Rental Dwelling Code established an absolute prohibition on renting out property within a community – – even though the landlord may have long done so and even though his or her property may be in pristine condition – – without a government-approved license that cannot be acquired without first paying a $100 annual fee per rental home and submitting to an open-ended warrantless search of every area of the property, inside and out.

        “The Federal Court’s ruling yesterday is a victory for all property owners and tenants. Local government agents do not have unlimited authority to force entry into Ohioans’ homes or businesses. To the contrary ‘houses’ are one of the types of property specifically mentioned by the Fourth Amendment; and Ohioans have a moral and constitutional right to exclude others, even government agents, from their property. Entry requires either a warrant or an emergency, and neither is present with respect to these suspicion-less rental inspections,” said Maurice Thompson, Executive Director of the 1851 Center.”

      2. Sam

        The City can’t require registration and then as a condition of registration force you to waive your constitutional rights. I am sure some people would like to be able to do that on certain issues, but it is not legal in any way.

        I can’t wait to see how much this program ends up costing the City when it is up and running. My guess is it will be way more than the $68K that has been estimated since that pays for about .6 FTE at the City.

        1. Michael Harrington

          Sam:  Yep, I agree with you.  Needs a Manager, an Assistant Manager, and 3-4 full time inspectors.  Oh, and at least one admin staffer to process the complaints and hammer the landlords.  Oh, and of course you need another 2 FTE in Finance, to bill the zillions of rental owners, and to count the money coming in.

          And don’t forget the 1-2 FTEs for the licensing program to keep track of these rental homes.

          I would estimate 7-8 FTEs for this new program.

          But hey, I think they will have the need for new programs, when the voters shut down the third Hail Mary exterior project that staff has been pushing for 3-4 years.

          But ask yourselves WHY, SUDDENLY, the CC has this emergency problem with abused renters and those nasty mini-dorms?? It’s because the Yes on A campaign is using the mini-dorm issue as a boogey man to point to as a justification for those 660 units at Nishi. It’s all to try and boost up Yes on A. All five CC members are pushing A, and somewhat desperate to find voters for it at this point.

          Vote NO on A.

        2. Barack Palin

          MH, you’re making some good points here regarding staffing for this new ordinance.  Although I feel your numbers are inflated you make some good points regarding billing, inspectors, customer service for any renters who might actually visit city hall asking for assistance, moderators, use of company vehicles for inspections, etc……

          I wonder how much this has really been thought out?

          If city hall might say they can handle it with existing staff then my question would be how do they have so much free time now and why are they all on the payroll?

          I think these costs and it’s financial impact to the city needs to be addressed publicly with the citizens.

        3. The Pugilist

          “WHY, SUDDENLY, the CC has this emergency problem with abused renters and those nasty mini-dorms”

          It amazes me that every single thing that you don’t care about and pay attention to is sudden.  Brett Lee has been talking about this issue since he came to council and before that Lamar Heystek ran on the issue of a renter’s bill of rights.  You should remember that, it was one of his centerpiece issues.  This isn’t sudden, it just took a long time to get traction because the other four on Lamar’s council didn’t give a crap about renter’s.

  8. quielo

    To my view there are two very different issues. One is the building inspection issue and in the case of “mini-dorms” there could well be a fire issue as well. Any subdivided space would likely need it’s own smoke detector and there needs to be safe fire exits. This is an appropriate city function though from the article it looks like the city is looking to collect more money without a commitment to provide more services.

    The mediation part is just dumb and likely a smokescreen to mask the collection of money without providing services. They could just write a pamphlet that states “you can use mediation and maybe get a nice letter and no money or go to court and get no letter but maybe real money”. Translate it into 5 languages and you have a program that sounds nice but does not cost anything.

  9. Yes on A Fan

    Obviously there has to be a balance on a program like this to be fair to all. Even with the new UCD housing plan, 60% of all students are not living on campus. The neighborhoods closest to campus are the hardest hit. I heard that over 50% of last year sales of home in Central Davis were absentee. This corresponds with the testimony of the Oeste Neighborhood Association at the City Council hearing. When it is a 100% landlords market (zero vacancy rate) these problems will persist and families are priced out.  Neither the neighborhoods nor the students are to blame,  but the severe lack of housing alternatives. This is also the principle cause of unaffordable housing in Davis.  No on A “Unaffordable Housing” signs on rentals throughout town (probably more than 50%)  the irony is too much, and a shame.

  10. Michael Harrington

    Yes on A:  I think the voters in Davis are going to send a strong message that they will not allow a couple-three local developers to enrichen themselves by wrecking the southern entrance to our city for up to 5-10 years of construction for a measly 660 units of non-affordable housing.   This project is as close to a scam as any I have seen.

  11. tribeUSA

    The rental ordinance may have major downsides:

    (1) Of course the fees will be passed on to the renters

    (2) By closing down many mini-dorms, etc. this will decrease the housing stock available for students in Davis, further increasing the demand on the available student living space in Davis. Are the big landlords (of apartment complexes) behind this measure?

  12. aaahirsch8

    This statement that cost will be pass on to renters is not a statement based on reality.

    Prices of rental, like everything else in a market-economy is base on the law of supply and demand.

    You can find proof of this in our lived reality:

    Rents have gone up 5-10% in the last year when, if anything things have cost less: mortgage rates down, gas price down.So why did rents go up so much? Shortage of housing.

    With the shortage landlords they are making large profits and are able to reduce their maintenance cost as student are despirate to rent anything.

    And anyway, $25/year of a minidorm fee, amortized over with 6 rooms rental over 12 month amount to 0.33c a month.

    Any Landlord crying poverty makes no sense economically.





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