PD Editorial: Santa Rosa misses a chance to keep rental housing safe

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Here’s one for the missed opportunities file: the Santa Rosa City Council deadlocked on an inspection program to root out squalor in local rental housing.

A year-long investigation by The Press Democrat, published over four days in January 2016, cataloged substandard living conditions that jeopardized the health and safety of hundreds of low-income renters in Sonoma County — rats chewing through walls, moldy carpets, roaches, sewage backing up into bathrooms, broken heaters and nonfunctioning electrical outlets, even snakes.

At the time, more than 250 tenant complaints throughout the county remained unresolved; a few cases had lingered for more than a decade.

Government agencies said they didn’t have the resources to ensure that landlords complied with building codes, and some of the tenants interviewed by Staff Writer Angela Hart said they were afraid of being evicted if they reported disgraceful living conditions.

Santa Rosa’s chief building official complained about “very savvy landlords out there who definitely know how to game the system.”

By April 2016, the Santa Rosa City Council was discussing an inspection program to be funded by a fee on rental property owners — not unlike the health inspections conducted at restaurants and grocery stores to ensure food safety. By expanding its staff of 3½ enforcement officers, the city hoped to erase a backlog of complaints and schedule regular inspections to ensure that rental properties didn’t become unsanitary.

In an editorial at the time, we said “this idea should be elevated to the top of the City Council’s to-do list.”

Well, it took nearly four years to get the inspection program back to the council, where it was killed on a 3-3 vote on Jan. 28.

Councilwoman Victoria Fleming and Councilmen Ernesto Olivares and Chris Rogers voted for the program, which would have required inspections once every five years for most rental units, and assessed a $172 per unit fee to cover the cost of the program.

Mayor Tom Schwedhelm and Councilmen Dick Dowd and John Sawyer voted no, siding with landlords and real estate interests who said inspections would be an unnecessary government intervention.

Councilman Jack Tibbetts was absent.

Tibbetts’ absence was especially disappointing because he was expected to cast the fourth and deciding vote in favor of the inspection program.

Tibbetts, who is executive director of the local chapter of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, said he missed the council meeting to shuttle people to the county’s sanctioned homeless encampment at Los Guilicos.

Important work? Yes. But so is serving on the council, and this wasn’t the first time Tibbetts’ job got in the way of his duties. He will have to address his absences and abstentions if he runs for reelection in November.

Homelessness has pushed substandard housing conditions off the top of the local agenda. But the two issues are related. Homelessness can’t be ended without affordable rentals, which are in short supply in the North Bay. Most landlords maintain their properties, but tenants are legally entitled to safe and sanitary living conditions. And four years after The Press Democrat’s “Stuck in Squalor” series, not enough has been done to protect them.

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