New ordinance targets landlords dubbed the “worst of the worst”

San Mateo, California — At its meeting on Tuesday, February 19, the City Council of San Mateo will consider adoption of an ordinance designed to ensure habitability of San Mateo apartments and to make provision for tenants who are forced to move as a result of extreme conditions threatening their health and safety. The idea for this ordinance was brought to the city by One San Mateo, a community group advocating for affordable housing solutions and a more fair and inclusive San Mateo.

In August of 2017, tenants living in an apartment building at 314 E. Poplar made city officials aware of an alarming set of conditions present in many of the 17 units there. These conditions included bedbugs, cockroaches, rats, mold, holes in the ceiling, irregular plumbing and electrical, and a number of other problems. Furthermore, it became known that the owner of the building was a previous mayor of a nearby city. 

In the wake of these discoveries at 314 E. Poplar, One San Mateo made the City Council aware of an ordinance adopted by the County of San Mateo to address egregious violations of this nature. The County ordinance was designed to build on existing state law, enhancing its provisions and filling in significant gaps. The gaps in state law included an absence of provision for temporary move-out and the lack of an enforcement mechanism to ensure that violating landlords would be sufficiently penalized.

For the County of San Mateo, Mike Callagy—then Assistant County Manager and now County Manager—took a lead role in shepherding the ordinance through to adoption. A strong advocate of the ordinance, Callagy has always stressed its deterrent value. Explaining his thinking behind the ordinance, Callagy says, “No resident should have to make a decision between safety and keeping a roof over their head. This ordinance sends a clear message to unscrupulous landlords that they will no longer be able to take advantage of renters because of the housing crisis many face in San Mateo County.”

The ordinance for the City of San Mateo imports most of the provisions of the County ordinance, incorporating only a few minor changes. The proposed ordinance provides that in the event of permanent move-out, tenants are to receive the equivalent of three-months’ market rent, plus moving costs of up to $1,000. In the event of repairs taking less than 90 days, tenants are to be provided with housing in San Mateo or an adjacent city and assured the right to return. If landlords refuse to comply with the ordinance, they can be penalized hundreds of dollars a day. Tenants are also eligible for treble damages in the context of court action. 

To provide for enforcement, the City of San Mateo intends to set up a fund of $50,000. This money can be used to advance to tenants if the landlord fails to comply with the ordinance. The city would then be able to recover the funds by placing a lien on the landlord’s property.   

“The penalty and enforcement provisions are important for giving teeth to the ordinance,” says Karyl Eldridge of One San Mateo. “When the Board of Supervisors made the County ordinance permanent in early 2018, the Supervisors defended the stiff penalties by saying that this ordinance was targeting ‘the worst of the worst’ landlords. Thankfully, the members of the San Mateo City Council seem to feel the same way and are giving their ordinance similar teeth.”

On February 19th, the San Mateo City Council will have a further discussion of the ordinance. One San Mateo and other tenant advocates are hopeful that the meeting will result in a decision to vote the ordinance into law.

“The apartment building at 314 E. Poplar was the beginning of our advocacy,” says Jordan Grimes, also a member of One San Mateo. “But there was yet another horrifying instance this past fall at a building on Casa de Campo in San Mateo. The behavior of these slumlords is an assault on our sense of decency, and this ordinance sends a message that there is no place for their behavior here. As a community, we cannot and will not tolerate it.”

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