Too many renters in San Luis Obispo are getting cheated. Here’s what might help | Opinion

In San Luis Obispo, too many tenants are being cheated.

Renters make up 60% of households in SLO, but are often given a raw deal by their landlords. An astonishing lack of checks and balances provides tenants with few tools to stand up for themselves.

My friend Susan was cheated. For over two months, Susan lived with black mold in her closet because her landlord refused to take action to protect her health. Susan contracted multiple illnesses and was forced to move out. Despite not having lived in her home for months, her landlord insisted she continue to pay rent.

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My friend Chris was cheated. After three months of living with exposed insulation and wiring, a leaking fridge, broken windows and collapsed fences — conditions that landlords are required to address — Chris attempted to withhold rent to spur his landlord to act. His landlord threatened to evict him and lied by claiming it’s illegal to withhold rent, despite California law saying otherwise.

According to a 2020 Tribune survey of nearly 200 SLO County renters, 83% of renters polled reported living with unsafe conditions. However, only 4% reported their issues to a city or county authority.

Many tenants cite fear of landlord retaliation as the primary motivator for keeping their complaints secret. Even when tenants do decide to report their issue directly to their landlord, 30% of renters polled reported that their landlord refused to fix it.

To provide safe, affordable and secure housing to SLO tenants, we need to measure so that we can manage. Unfortunately, we aren’t measuring enough. The lack of data on rental units in SLO County is a consequence of the tenant-landlord power imbalance. According to PolicyLink, a national research and action institute advancing racial and economic equity, “there is little to no comprehensive, timely data available to understand the housing conditions and experiences of renters across the country.”

When basic information about rental units — such as the address of the unit or contact information of the landlord — is not reported to a housing authority, code inspectors must rely on tenant complaints to become aware of potential code infractions. However, the reality is that many tenants are afraid to report issues with their rentals.

SLO needs a rental registration program that provides information on housing availability, helps connect prospective renters with available properties and eases tenants’ fear of unlawful eviction. These programs provide key information to municipalities by collecting information on the price of rent, occupancy status of the unit, contact information for the landlord and more. Additionally, the programs often create online pathways for tenants to report landlord negligence or abuse directly to local agencies.

Measuring more puts a check on cheaters. According to a study by The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “North Carolina cities with mandatory, proactive rental registration ordinances also found that the ordinances resulted in landlords bringing their properties into code compliance more rapidly, a decrease in residential fires and a reduction in code complaints.”

Rental registration programs are a ruler to measure fairness. Landlords who comply with codes lose nothing, and landlords who violate the rules are punished.

Two municipalities on the Central Coast recently passed rental registration programs. In July 2023, the Salinas City Council adopted a residential rental registration ordinance, which will help the city “develop and implement housing element requirements, support additional production of rental units and ... provide a robust platform to provide much-needed fair housing services and supports.” Monterey’s rental registration program launched Jan. 1 and aims to “inform future policy decisions about the regulation of the rental market.”

Not all landlords cheat their tenants. My friend Jim’s water heater recently broke and, without a second thought, his landlord paid for its replacement. However, not all tenants in SLO have Jim’s landlord, and they might lack Jim’s knack for self-advocacy. Many tenants in our city and county are discriminated against due to language barriers, immigration status or income levels.

We all deserve safe, secure, affordable housing. We must advocate for a rental registration program that fills the information gap that perpetuates tenant abuse and protect our neighbors from being taken advantage of. It’s harder to cheat when everyone is watching.

Brenden Jacoby is a fourth-year communication studies student at Cal Poly. He is a member of the San Luis Obispo Rent Coalition and leader on the Cal Poly Debate Team.