By Dean Preston
A recent case barely registered on anyone's radar screen, but it will have a huge impact. In Griffith v. City of Santa Cruz, (2012) 207 Cal.App.4th 982, the Court upheld Santa Cruz's 2010 ordinance requiring routine inspections of rental housing. The decision puts to rest various arguments used by opponents of rental housing inspection laws.
Routine inspections are essential to effective code enforcement. These laws complement complaint-driven inspections. Too often, tenants are afraid to complain about poor living conditions for fear that their landlord will retaliate against them. Even though such retaliation is illegal, the fear of it is very real. Under routine inspection ordinances, landlords cannot count on their tenants’ fear to escape responsibility for making necessary repairs. Code enforcement officials will inspect regardless of whether a tenant complains.
Landlords complained that the Santa Cruz ordinance in the case was preempted by state law and interfered with their right to privacy. The court dismissed these arguments, finding the local inspection law fully consistent with state law, and noting correctly that the landlord has no right to privacy in a unit occupied by tenants. Tenants have the right to privacy as they have the exclusive right to occupy, and the ordinance has safeguards to make sure that the tenant’s right to privacy is not violated.
The court also explicitly upheld the $45 registration fee and the $20 per unit charge imposed on landlords, holding that this was not a tax, but instead a fee to offset the costs of administering the program.
It is rare to have a good court decision with such clarity on an issue of importance to tenants. The message to cities in California is clear: routine inspection laws are a legal and effective way to improve living conditions for tenants.