The road to gentrification might be paved with good intentions. And in the idea the city of Salinas had for a program to require landlords to register their rental properties and submit to annual inspections in order to protect tenants, I saw a lot of good intentions.
The idea was first raised in January with the release of what’s known as “The Salinas Plan,” a consultant’s report creating a blueprint for fiscal sustainability and housing affordability. The report notes some stunning realities: About 48 percent of all households are considered “cost-burdened,” meaning they spend 30 percent or more of their income on housing, compared to 33 percent of cost-burdened households nationally; and there’s been a 155-percent increase in homelessness in Salinas since 2013.
And while about 60 percent of Salinas’ housing stock is rental property, there’s not a clear picture of how the owners of those properties comply with laws regulating rentals. What is clear is that there are some pretty bad landlords out there – some rent out backyard sheds and garages, neither of which are legal dwellings, and others maintain substandard properties where mold flourishes, where electricity in some rooms happens because extension cords are strung together and where, at least in a few documented cases, several dozen tenants cram together in a space meant for four or five.
The numbers leads to another fact: The people who live in substandard conditions with laissez faire landlords rarely complain. There’s too great a fear of getting kicked out of a place. Once evicted, there are few places for renters to go.
One of the strategies laid out in The Salinas Plan was to create the rental registration and inspection program. In the program, landlords would register their rental properties and pay to have those properties inspected – from the city’s point of view, it could help cut down on substandard housing, and help hold landlords accountable.
The city has started doing community outreach on the plan. On Aug. 26, a meeting at Martin Luther King Academy on Sanborn Road was facilitated by Salinas Community Development Director Megan Hunter and two authors of The Salinas Plan – former Housing and Urban Development sub-secretary Mercedes Marquez and municipal finance expert Russ Branson. About 50 people attended, including tenants and landlords. The presentations were in Spanish, with translation provided for non-Spanish speakers. The idea was to gather information for the creation of a white paper to present to City Council.
And it didn’t take long before the meeting went completely off the rails. Landlords are angry that they’d have to pay for inspections, at a cost estimated to be about $7-$10 per month per unit, and tenants are angry the program offers no protection against rent increases that would be passed on to them if inspections result in cash outlays by landlords to fix deficiencies.
One property manager said passing costs down was guaranteed.
“When a landlord’s taxes go up, I get a phone call saying, ‘My taxes went up, raise the rents,’” he said. “That’s just a fact.”
Frustrated attendees shouted down Hunter and Marquez and demanded data that doesn’t yet exist. They accused Marquez, who also served as a deputy mayor for housing and general manager of the housing department of Los Angeles, of gentrifying Boyle Heights and wondered what her plans were to gentrify East Salinas.
“We’re trying to find a balance,” Hunter said. “We don’t want people living in unsafe conditions.”
Maybe one question that should get a lot more consideration: How do you raise living standards without displacing people?
“This is not the only solution. We need supply as well,” said Alfred Diaz-Infante, CEO of affordable housing developer CHISPA, which has about 600 rental units in Salinas. “We’re trying to protect our families and make sure they’re living in safe conditions, but we also need to protect them from undue rental increases and evictions.”
Hunter says the next step is to discuss the meeting with the council’s housing subcommittee, which could then forward the matter to City Council for further discussion.
MARY DUAN writes Local Spin for Monterey County Weekly. Reach her at email@example.com or follow her at twitter.com/maryrduan