Back in January 2017, the Davis City Council adopted an ordinance designed to protect renters and ensure that their housing was safe and that codes were being followed—and it included not only rental regulations, but an inspection program.
However, in November, staff brought to council a program update and staff now reports that “we found some ordinance provisions do not work efficiently and discovered new issues that need to be addressed.”
Over the years, we have heard complaints from students, particularly about the failure for their landlords to maintain safe and working rental units, the abuse of the security deposit, the inability to reach the landlord, and many other problems. The tight rental market has exacerbated these problems, as threats to remove renters for complaints has become amplified because of the scarcity of housing making it difficult, if not impossible, to find a new rental unit mid-lease.
When the issue came up before council, now-Mayor Brett Lee stated that “most of the actors are good actors,” and “most of the rental housing is in good condition,” which leads people to question the need for inspection.
Brett Lee, however, 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.”
But, clearly, problems remain and the new sections that deal with tenant harassment in particular show an ongoing problem.
Prior to bringing the update to council, the city shared the changes with the stakeholder group, including representatives from the California Apartment Association, local property managers, and ASUCD.
According to staff, “We did not receive any opposition to the ordinance amendments.”
At the core of problem, the ordinance notes that “the city’s rental housing market is greatly impacted by a reduced vacancy rate. As a result of the low vacancy rate, there is an increased likelihood that tenants fail to report substandard and unsafe conditions existing on rental properties in the City of Davis out of fear of losing their homes.”
Substandard residential dwelling units “may include dangerous physical conditions and characteristics that violate state and local building and housing regulations.”
The ordinance seeks to “safeguard the stock of rental housing in the city through a cooperative partnership of owners, tenants, the city and the community. The purpose of the residential rental dwelling unit registration and inspection program enacted by this article is to proactively address, mitigate, and prevent the health and safety risks and adverse secondary effects of substandard conditions at residential rental dwelling units in the city.”
Among the additions are a section on “tenant harassment.”
The new section indicates that no owner or agent of the owner shall do any of the following in “bad faith,” defined as “an intent to vex, annoy, harass, provoke, or injure another person.”
This includes “the intent of an owner or manager to induce a tenant to vacate a rental housing unit through unlawful conduct.”
Prohibited conduct includes: an interruption, termination or failure to provide housing services required by law, failure to perform repairs, attempting to “influence a tenant to vacate a rental housing unit through fraud, intimidation or coercion” or induce a tenant to vacate by offering payments or coercion.
Any person found in violation will be held liable “for each and every such offense for the actual damages suffered by any aggrieved party or for statutory damages in the sum of between one thousand dollars and ten thousand dollars, whichever is greater, and shall be liable for such attorneys’ fees and costs as may be determined by the court in addition thereto.”
In addition, “It shall be unlawful for an owner to recover possession of a residential rental dwelling unit, cause the tenant(s) of such units to involuntarily quit, increase the rent, or decrease services in retaliation against a tenant for exercising his or her right to file a complaint with the city advising that violations of this code may exist on the property.”
The council believes “that a residential rental registration and inspection program will safeguard the stock of rental housing available in the City,” and it will be interesting to hear from students about how effectively they see the inspection program working.
—David M. Greenwald reporting