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Pressure increases on apartment owners - Mandatory crime-free certification to be required when calls for service meet threshold

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors has given its approval to a new law requiring rental housing owners and operators to undergo Crime Free Multi-Housing certification if certain thresholds are met, and be subject to a $2,500 fine if they fail to take the training.

The supervisors’ 5-0 vote July 13 was the second reading of the ordinance, which was also unanimously approved during its introduction and first reading on June 29. The ordinance will take effect Aug. 12.

The supervisors’ motion also directs county staff to work with the San Diego County Apartment Association on providing documents that differentiate property owners who have undergone voluntary certification from those who were required to be certified and calls for the ordinance to be returned to the Board of Supervisors in one year for review.

Prior to the July 13 second reading and vote on the ordinance, the Supervisors gave their input at the June 29 meeting. “Responsible property owners and landlords are not the target of this ordinance. It’s only the problem properties,” said Supervisor Dianne Jacob.

The existing Crime Free Multi-Housing education program and certification has been in place for several years as a voluntary program, and successful in reducing crime and blight in multi-family housing complexes.

Those complexes that have not undergone such certification, which includes inspection as well as training and requires each tenant to enter into a lease addendum promising not to commit or allow the commission of criminal activity on the premises, include poorly maintained or managed properties that have created problems not just for other tenants but also for neighboring properties and the surrounding community. The ordinance requires owners or operators to undergo the certification process if the housing facility generates at least 10 calls for service to law enforcement agencies within any 90-day period or if a 90-day period produces a 25 percent increase in calls for local law enforcement relative to two other similarly-situated residential rental housing facilities.

“There’s a need to give additional teeth,” said Supervisor Greg Cox.

During the Board of Supervisors hearing, several Spring Valley residents spoke about problems with a nearby apartment complex that has created criminal activity and other unruly behavior that affects the neighbors. The San Diego County Apartment Association expressed support for the concept of requiring owners of problem facilities to undergo training but it fears that confusion may prevent the public from differentiating between owners who proactively undergo the certification process and facilities forced to be certified.

Crime Free Multi-Family is a trademark and certification under that particular name may be required to obtain some grants, so different names for voluntary and mandatory certifications would not be feasible. Various distinctions are possible. “The current certification, I think, can be enhanced so it’s even more meaningful,” Jacob said.

The ordinance includes a process to contest a notice to require certification and includes provisions for an appeal fee which will be based on cost recovery along with a waiver provision in the event an appellant claims an economic hardship. While the specific appeal fee is to be determined periodically by the Board of Supervisors, the ordinance includes a $150 fee for the certification application and a $50 annual renewal fee. Violators may be fined up to $2,500 per violation for each day the violation has occurred, and intentional violation carries a penalty of up to $6,000 per day.

“I just don’t want to see landlords not report crime because they’re afraid of this penalty,” said Supervisor Bill Horn. “We don’t want to have a chilling effect on the reporting of crimes.”

Horn owns rental properties but not in unincorporated San Diego County, so he does not have a material interest in the ordinance. “I don’t have a problem with the ordinance. My problem is the notification,” he said.

Because Jacob was working with the San Diego County Apartment Association on the ordinance, the June 29 hearing was not docketed until the previous Friday. The day before that hearing Horn learned from Fallbrook apartment owners that they were unaware of the proposed ordinance. “I just don’t think the Fallbrook owners got proper notice,” he said.

While the San Diego County Apartment Association notified their members, the California Apartment Association members were not notified.

Horn was concerned that North County apartment owners needed to be informed of the proposed ordinance prior to the July 13 hearing. “I just want the landlords in my area to understand just what the ordinance is.”

The ordinance language requires certification for “residential rental housing facilities that have at least 10 calls for service to the Sheriff’s Department and/or the Fire Department within any given 90 day period.” The inclusion of calls for service to the fire department may count non-crime paramedic and fire calls toward the 10-call threshold. “My concern is the ten calls,” Horn said.

Horn also noted that angry neighbors may place calls to be punitive to rental complexes.

Although the ordinance’s lease addendum states that prohibited activity shall constitute a substantial violation of the lease and be grounds for termination of tenancy and eviction, civil courts rather than administrative county personnel handle eviction appeals. “The judges are not real friendly in evicting some of these people,” Horn said. “We don’t always win.”

There was insufficient time between the hearing dates to arrange a community forum for North County apartment owners and operators, but Horn plans to hold at least one meeting later in the year, where complex owners and operators can discuss what may or may not be working with the ordinance so far.

Supervisor Pam Slater-Price agreed that the ordinance’s success will depend on the ability to evict violators. “The courts need to back up the Sheriff’s Department and responsible owners,” she said.

After the July 13 vote, Horn said he is still concerned that there may be some vague aspects to the ordinance and plans to offer a community forum in North County on the subject later in the year. He said he will relay any concerns brought forth at that forum to his fellow supervisors.

Shelli DeRobertis contributed to this story.

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