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Richmond City Council Takes Action to Strengthen Rental Inspection Program for Tenant Protection

CM Robinson's Staff

May 31, 2023

In an effort to address the pressing issue of subpar housing conditions and protect tenants' rights, Richmond Mayor Martinez and Council Member Doria Robinson are spearheading a crucial initiative to tighten the city's rental inspection program. This move aims to alleviate the burden placed on tenants and ensure that landlords are held accountable for maintaining safe and habitable rental units.

The rental inspection program, part of a comprehensive housing initiative, has been in the works for a significant period, with collaboration between the city council and the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE). The ACCE identified weaknesses in the current ordinance and proposed straightforward fixes to strengthen it, offering tenants better protection against living in substandard conditions.

One of the primary goals of the initiative is to shift the responsibility of enforcing proper maintenance of rental properties from tenants to landlords. Tenants who are already burdened with the challenges of survival, often working multiple jobs or being single parents, should not have to wage battles with their landlords to secure safe and secure housing. The proposed changes aim to mandate more frequent inspections of rental units and provide clearer guidelines for inspectors, ensuring that repairs are competently executed and in compliance with regulations.

The existing rental inspection ordinance in Richmond, known as the "Residential Rental Dwelling Unit Inspection and Maintenance" ordinance, falls short in safeguarding tenants' rights and fails to comprehensively address the issue of uninhabitable housing. Currently, inspections occur either upon tenant complaint or in specific situations without tenant involvement, resulting in a patchwork strategy that leaves many units unregulated.

When violations are identified, the ordinance stipulates that inspections should extend to all residential rental dwelling units within a building, and landlords must pay applicable fees. However, the implementation of penalties and enforcement measures has been lackluster, with minimal action taken against non-compliant landlords. This laxity undermines the ordinance's intended purpose and perpetuates a culture where landlords believe they can disregard the city's laws without consequences.

A significant loophole in the existing law allows landlords who own three or more rental units in Richmond to self-certify their properties as habitable, resulting in limited inspections. This self-certification process is problematic as it can be easily abused, and landlords may not possess the qualifications to conduct thorough health and safety inspections. Furthermore, the exemption of subsidized housing from routine inspections discriminates against low-income tenants, denying them necessary city services based on their income and housing status.

To address these shortcomings, the proposed amendments include eliminating the self-certification loophole and the exemption for subsidized rental units, ensuring routine inspections for all tenants. Additionally, the adoption of a "tenant habitability plan" ordinance is recommended, which would require landlords to consider tenants' existence and minimize disruptions during significant repairs. Tenants would have the opportunity to provide input on the repair plan, and non-compliant landlords could face legal action.

The urgency to reform Richmond's housing inspection practices is undeniable. Reports from ACCE members have highlighted instances where inspections yield minimal or no action from landlords, and even violation notices are not issued as required. Strengthening the rental inspection program is crucial, whether or not staffing changes occur. The involvement of private contractors in the building department must be reevaluated, as their demonstrated pattern of failing to protect tenants raises concerns.

By tightening the rental inspection program, Richmond City Council aims to rectify the systemic violation of tenants' rights and create a culture of accountability among landlords. These proposed changes will provide tenants with the necessary protection and alleviate the burden they face in ensuring livable conditions. As Richmond moves forward, it is crucial to prioritize the wellbeing of tenants and foster a community where safe and secure housing is a fundamental right for all residents

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