SANTA FE SPRINGS — In two weeks, this city will begin inspecting apartments before new tenants move into them, exerting an unprecedented degree of control over landlords.
The city also will inspect every rental unit every year to make sure that it complies with state and local health and building codes.
Deficient apartments may no longer be rented. To prevent it, the city will disconnect the utilities if necessary. Owners permitting tenants to live in substandard conditions risk six months in jail and a $500 fine.
The cost of enforcing the new law is likely to cause rent increases, and rent control may be the next step, according to representatives of landlords and tenants.
"The city is getting directly involved in protecting tenant rights," said Steve Cancian, an organizer for the Coalition for Economic Survival, a countywide tenants group that has pushed for rent control throughout the county. "The city is taking responsibility for not only a reactive response, but a pro-active one."
The Santa Fe Springs ordinance is modeled after one in Azusa. And cities as far away as Memphis, Tenn., are considering similar regulations, said David Rudisel, Azusa's community improvement manager.
If the idea does spread, Rudisel said, its effect could be felt across Southern California. The city of Los Angeles alone has at least 700,000 rental units.
Landlord advocates say that what might work for Santa Fe Springs, with 1,100 rental units, or Azusa, with 6,500 units, would be too cumbersome for Los Angeles.
They consider the ordinance costly and unnecessary. Landlords will have to pay $50 per rental unit per year for the annual inspection. Additional inspections will cost $25 apiece. Owners must also pay for any required repairs or maintenance.
"The tenants will ultimately pick up the cost of this, whether it's the tenants in place or those coming next," said Trevor Grimm, an attorney who represents landlords. "If you keep increasing costs without allowing landlords to recover costs, there won't be any rental business."
Cancian agreed that tenants will face a financial bind because Santa Fe Springs does not limit rent increases. "It's unfair to make tenants choose between a rent they can afford and a decent home," he said, adding that rent control would be a logical next step.
Gary Holme, president of the Los Angeles Board of Realtors, objects to further regulation, particularly rent control. "There are already procedures on the books for slumlord problems," he said. Even without the mandated inspections, city officials have the authority to ensure that apartments are up to code, he said.
Such authority, however, does not provide for needed money and manpower. That's why the fees under the Santa Fe Springs plan are gauged to make the city's inspections self-supporting.
"It would be good for the city and the complex as long as the tenants are not charged," said Walter Sheehan, a tenant at Placita Park Apartments, a government-subsidized complex with senior-citizen renters.
"Most of us are on a low, fixed income," added Harley Waite, who, like Sheehan, belongs to the Placita Park Tenants Assn. "In the past, we've had problems with the management. Now the management is very good."
Holme said the new ordinance unfairly penalizes good landlords and tenants. "There are a few specific problems," he said. "Then they pass an ordinance that affects everybody." Holme said that for professional landlords, permitting substandard housing conditions is bad business.
But Ana Price, assistant director of social services for Santa Fe Springs, said that without the ordinance, "tenants are afraid to come forward and say something. They feel they will be threatened with eviction."
Under the new ordinance, she said, the city will step forward and assume responsibility for locating substandard living conditions.
And when that happens, said landlord advocate Grimm, the blame will fall to the wrong party. He offered an example: "You can have a missing screen on day one, replace it on day two, and be subject to penalties on day three when it's missing again.
"Very few owners bust up their own units. You can fix up a building one day and come back and find it virtually demolished the next. The owner gets tagged every time."
Grimm would prefer a system that more readily imposes the costs of damage on the tenants found to be responsible for it.
Price agreed that some tenants wreak havoc on apartments, including the Florence Fountain Apartments near the corner of Pioneer Boulevard and Florence Avenue. Complaints about that facility helped prompt the adoption of the ordinance.
"They have come in and fixed the laundry room," she said. "The next day it will be graffiti-ed all over again. They repeatedly fixed the washers. Then tenants jam the washers. They put up some new locks that needed to be put around the pool area to keep younger kids out. The next day the locks would be broken. People have to take more responsibility in respecting the things around them.