Critics say rental inspections are making an overpriced rental market even worse
On a quiet street in Seabright behind a yellow house is a small white cottage, a converted garage where Paula Gregoire lived until recently with her 10-year-old daughter Isabella Naranjo. That cottage will soon turn back into a garage.
Santa Cruz city planning officials red-tagged Gregoire’s home last month for violations against planning laws, and she was ordered to vacate. City staff had come to the property as part of the city’s rental inspection ordinance, passed by the Santa Cruz City Council in 2010.
Inspectors found issues with the Gregoire home—that, for instance, the property’s lot size, according to city code, was not large enough to accommodate an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) like Gregoire’s, which had been there unpermitted when her parents bought the property three decades ago.
The planning commission made serious headway this month with possible ways to legalize more units. But Gregoire has become the face of the remaining controversy, ever since the city ordered her to pay $300 after she stayed past the deadline given to her by officials.
Gregoire and her daughter, meanwhile, have since been staying with friends. She is trying to file a preliminary injunction to be let back into her home, but city spokesperson Keith Sterling says her 83-year-old father missed his opportunity to challenge the decision in court.
Commissioner Mark Primack, who wants to see more ADUs legalized, is sympathetic. “Paula doesn’t understand the ordinances, but she shouldn’t have to,” he says. “They should be clear enough that everyone understands them.”
According to Sterling, 34 ADUs—sometimes called “granny units” or “in-law units”—have been fully turned back into their original structures in the past three years for a variety of reasons—problems that include health and safety issues and violation of an “owner-occupied” rule. For areas zoned for single-family residential use, city law requires any property owner with an ADU to live onsite—either in the main house or in the back unit.
Both city staff and critics of the laws have said it’s impossible to say for sure how many people have been evicted, because there’s no way to track landlords who abated unpermitted ADUs on their own.
Primack cautions that ADUs have made for “grassroots affordable housing,” and that cracking down on them takes that away.
“It’s not even a zero-growth policy. They’re taking away homes,” says Gregoire, a substitute teacher who served this past year as PTA vice president for Gault Elementary School.
Two city councilmembers are now calling for a repeal of the rental inspection ordinance over the confusion around the program and concern about local residents losing their homes.
Supporters of the inspections, however, say the program isn’t about kicking people out of their homes. They say it’s about making the town’s housing safer, as most of the pertinent regulations on the books relate to health and safety. Others relate to technical issues like lot size and distance from property lines.
The Planning Commission voted 4-3 this month to relax the city’s ADU laws, allowing for shorter setbacks from property lines, lower requirements for the minimum lot size, and an increase in the amount of space an ADU can take up on the property. That should allow many landlords to bring their unpermitted units up to code.
The commission also voted 6-1 to recommend waiving the owner-occupied rule that requires property owners to live onsite—although that isn’t a suggestion the Council has shown interest in taking up in the past. If it does, Primack says, it could have a big impact. “That will go a long way toward saving a lot of units in Santa Cruz,” Primack says.
Primack, an architect who cast a dissenting vote over the ordinance changes, says the new suggested ADU rules aren’t relaxed enough. He wants to grandfather in virtually all existing ADUs that meet health and safety requirements. He worries landlords will struggle to bring their buildings up to current codes, a concern shared by the two other architects on the commission.
Other commissioners say the proposed ADU updates strike a middle ground that should appease both people concerned about protecting housing and those concerned with making it safe. Planning Commission Chair Mark Mesiti-Miller says the update will protect more units in the future and bring some unpermitted ones previously waiting in limbo into the fold. (There are currently 85 unpermitted illegal units waiting in limbo.) Not every unpermitted structure that’s ever been built can be OK’d, though.
“The majority of the planning commissioners felt that we’re changing it enough to make it pretty easy (on tenants and landlords), but we’re not really going to make it OK for anyone to do whatever they want,” Mesiti-Miller says.
When it comes to the city’s rental inspection program, City Councilmember Pamela Comstock wants to start over from scratch.
Comstock worries that removing ADUs will only cut the supply of local housing, driving rents up and forcing people to either become homeless or leave the city altogether.
“It’s causing hardship across the board, from landlords to tenants, to people looking for housing,” Comstock said after a recent community meeting with activists on the topic. “To me, the most damning thing is that rents have gone up. We have this huge problem with homelessness, and we’re contributing to that by kicking people out of their homes.”
Councilmembers Comstock and Micah Posner say that repealing the rental inspection ordinance will give city leaders a chance to step back and review planning laws again. The two may split, though, on specifics of the owner-occupied rule, which Comstock opposes and Posner says he might support in the long run. He says he doesn’t want Santa Cruz to become a haven for absentee landlords who buy up properties in Santa Cruz and build ADUs that in essence create low-end duplexes, changing the flavor of Santa Cruz’s neighborhoods.
Even some critics of the rental inspection ordinance worry a repeal might go too far. At the recent community meeting, several activists said they didn’t want to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Without rental inspectors, they suggested, some tenants in hazardous conditions might be afraid to step forward out of fear of retribution. Posner suggested the city go back to its complaint-driven system and mail out materials to all rentals—in English and Spanish—which make it clear that it’s illegal for landlords to retaliate against a tenant who reports a hazard.
Planning Commission Chair Mesiti-Miller, an engineer who has heard horror stories about the town’s rentals, says at the end of the day, the inspection ordinance is going to keep people safe.
“It’s good that we have a rental inspection program,” Mesiti-Miller says, “and I think a lot of the students attending UC Santa Cruz are being taken advantage of, and I’m happy that’s not going to be taking place.”
Local book seller Joe Mancino felt blindsided, though, by the whole process. As he moves out of his ADU near downtown, he says the process of looking for a new place on top of two jobs has made his life “nearly unmanageable.”
Mancino wishes the leasing company had told him or his partner originally if there was anything wrong with the house or that the property owner was supposed to live onsite.
“If they’re going to pass ordinances like that,” Mancino says, “I feel like one of the things going along with it is that [landlords] should be required to show that it is legal.”
PHOTO: Paula Gregoire stands with her daughter in front of their converted garage home before violations forced them to move. CHIP SCHEUER