In an effort to support at-risk tenants who find themselves in unsafe housing, San Mateo County officials are considering extending a measure aimed at better defining landlord responsibilities in maintaining their properties.

Put in place last spring, an ordinance requiring landlords to pay relocation assistance to tenants forced to vacate substandard housing units has brought more awareness to standards for safe and habitable residences for families and individuals already codified in state and local laws, said Assistant County Manager Mike Callagy.

“It gives the tenants recourse and puts the burden back on the landlord who violated the law and didn’t provide habitable residence for them,” he said, adding that requiring landlords to pay for relocation benefits shifts the burden away from human services agencies that had been supporting displaced tenants. “More importantly, the taxpayers don’t end up paying for the displacement of these individuals.”

Aimed at addressing an increasing number of anonymous complaints filed from tenants and concerned neighbors about unsafe living conditions, the ordinance is set to sunset in March unless the Board of Supervisors votes to extend it permanently at its meeting Tuesday, Feb. 13.

By requiring a landlord whose property cannot be brought up to code or made safe within 90 days to provide three months’ fair-market rent for a similar-sized unit, and up to $1,000 in moving expenses, they could be on the hook for nearly $10,000 under the new ordinance, which Callagy acknowledged only applies to a handful of property owners. He said the ordinance has come into effect only once this year when a property owner who initially refused to cooperate was eventually required to provide tenant relocation benefits.

When supervisors approved the measure last spring, the average rent for a two-bedroom in San Mateo County was hovering around $3,018, according to a previous staff report citing data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

For Supervisor Don Horsley, the ordinance both highlighted and rectified some of the issues county renters have been facing. Together with an ordinance designed to ramp up code enforcement inspections, Horsley said the measures are part of a series of steps the county has taken to improve tenant safety in recent years as the regional housing crisis has mounted pressure on renters.

“Sure enough, we found that people were living in places that simply weren’t habitable,” he said.

Horsley said the ordinance has pushed landlords to take more responsibility for tenants living in housing that should have never been rented in the first place or that was rendered unsafe by an owner failing to keep it to code. Through the county’s focus on improving tenant safety, he said officials have found many have been reticent to speak up out of fear they might lose their homes.

“Housing in this county is so dear that they didn’t want to take the chance of alienating the landlords,” he said.

In cases when tenants are temporarily displaced, landlords will still be required to cover their tenants’ costs but may not be on the hook for the full $10,000, said Horsley. Recognizing tenants may be responsible for some of the issues found during code enforcement inspections, Horsley said county officials have worked with both landlords and tenants to address unsafe conditions.

“So we don’t always hold it on the landlord’s responsibility, we also will work with the tenants to get them squared away,” he said.

Callagy said an anti-retaliation provision is one new addition to the ordinance supervisors will review Tuesday to address any fears of retaliation tenants might have and ensure they feel comfortable stepping forward with complaints.

With the help of groups representing Realtors such as the San Mateo County Association of Realtors, the Silicon Valley Association of Realtors and the California Apartment Association, Callagy said word about the county’s focus on ensuring safe conditions for tenants has spread.

“This is a small minority of landlords who would take advantage of tenants,” he said. “But we definitely wanted to have something in place.”

The Board of Supervisors meets 9 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 13, at 400 County Center, Redwood City.

(650) 344-5200 ext. 106

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