There appeared to be a sense of last-minute urgency among those in the standing-room-only crowd at Monday night’s marathon of a City Council meeting.
But it wasn’t too late for the overwhelming majority of people who were not in support of a sweeping rental housing inspection program intended to protect tenants from slumlords and substandard living conditions, but aimed to include every single rental unit in town.
More than 25 residents, including several property managers and Realtors, spoke during the public comment period. Most decried the fees, penalties and the manner of implementation.
By the time talks returned to the dais, Councilman Fernando Echevarria quickly made a motion to axe it all together.
“I urge you mayor, and I urge my fellow council members, to tear down this ordinance,”Echevarria said in a Reaganesque manner of speaking. “It’s come to a point of it just being ridiculous.”
Echevarria’s colleagues would indeed tear up the plan in 5-2 vote, with Mayor MatthewSerratto and Councilman Jesse Ornales voting NO. Those two had argued to continue discussions and perhaps improve the program by addressing some of the issues critics had with it.
The idea started out with good intentions about a year ago, back when Mike Murphy was mayor, and then-Councilman Serratto proposed it to be put on the staff’s agenda as something to be studied.
This year, work was done to present a draft ordinance (which was need to enforce the inspections) in April, and then it came before the council again in July. A half dozen residents, including Sheng Xiong of the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability and Diana Odom Gunn of the Downtown Merced Neighborhood Association, voiced support for the measure.
Even then, Echevarria’s urged the council and staff to scale down the scope of the ordinance to favor owners of single-family homes.
The Times published an op/ed piece by Michael Belluomini that was highly critical of the strategy, saying that it burdened good landlords with unnecessary fees that would end up raising rents for tenants, if rents could be raised at all due to potential penalties involved.
Meanwhile, two community meetings were put in place, including one involving city staff, local property managers and Realtors. The top brass — City Manager Stephanie Dietz, along with Frank Quintero and Scott McBride — also met with inquisitive members of the Merced Boosters, an influential group of prominent Merced business owners and professionals.
And then last Saturday, local “Citizens Watch” radio talk show host Casey Steed dedicated all of his fiery Saturday morning commentary to the rental inspection issue while he cried out for the local real estate community to get involved.
“Where are you?” Steed bellowed over the airwaves. “You got to show up [to the City Council meetings] because you know who’s been showing up? — all the community organizers, all the people that vilify you, all the people that think landlords are bad, wealth is bad, owning property is bad.”
The rental inspection program intended to create a fire department-driven program to inspect all rental housing units for things such as mold and pests, proper smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, hot and cold running water, and heating and cooling systems.
New inspection fees would have ranged from $25 to $75 depending on the units involved, and a self-certification option was available for a $100 fee after an initial review of the property. Fines for noncompliance would have started at $100 per day, but would have sharply increased for additional penalties, up to $1,000 per day for a provision penalty.
During the public comment period of Monday night’s City Council meeting, John Schwalbach of Merced Old 99 Realty prompted a few chuckles when he spoke at the podium and brought forth an enlarged photo of a homeless encampment in the city.
He told city leaders: “I was over at one of your rental properties at 13th and G streets [where people are living in tents], and I don’t think they have a smoke detector. I don’t think they have a carbon monoxide detector. They don’t use any screens in this place. … You have a one bedroom under a tree with a view. … This is a problem that needs to be taken care of first before we go into the property owners and property managers who take care of their tenants. … We are glad to work with you but we need something reasonable.”
Property manager Renee Davenport, who is also an advocate for homeless people in the community, said:
“How are you even going to implement this? It makes no sense. And then you are going to charge us $100 per property that we own and that is going to be what? My understanding is that … with the inspector that you are going to hire, you will only be able to inspect a home every nine years — even though we have to pay every year $100.”
Ernie Ochoa, one of 600 members of the Merced County Association of Realtors, said: “We already have all kinds of codes. We have the California Building Code. We have the Uniform Code for the Abatement of Dangerous Buildings. We have the California Electrical Code. We have a Plumbing Code. … I think the City Council should focus more city resources, staff time and revenue on enhancing our current Code Enforcement program.”
And Bill Baker, another Merced property manager, drove his point home: “This [proposed program] is a great incentive for investors to not invest in Merced, but force them to other communities because we already have layers upon layers of fees, and fines and ordinances. And really, the incentive for the property owner is a built-in incentive. Most property owners want to maintain the value of their property. … You are talking about a very small fraction of properties that have these violations. Our biggest problem for the blight in Merced isn’t the dilapidated rentals that you are talking about. It’s the homeless encampments. … That’s your property. Leave us alone. We take care of our properties. You take care of yours. … We don’t need another investigation in search of a crime. That’s what this is.”
He added, “I don’t want you to go back and rewrite it, or rethink it. … I want you to delete it.”
Bakers comments prompted a loud round of applauds from the attentive audience.