In a rare example of some transparency between government and the public, Ventura officials, in response to the outcry from the rental property community, have delayed a decision on proposed legislation that could enact stricter fees and enforcement against substandard housing within the city limits.

Members of the city council agreed this week to continue a discussion of a Rental Housing Preservation Program (RHPP) from their scheduled Nov. 24 meeting to Dec. 8. Their reason? To get into “listening mode”; to assuage, say officials, a series of miscommunications between City Hall and local landlords, who have maintained that the program will hand down unnecessary fees and impinge on their rights as property owners.

“There’s been a good deal of hysteria around this issue,” states Rick Cole, Ventura’s city manager.

The city’s intentions with proposing something like the RHPP, according to its description, have been to reduce rental units that are illegal — those conversions makeshift from garages, for example — and to better keep track of deteriorating or below-standard living conditions through better inspection processes. It was justified through city code enforcement statistics, which show that 30 percent of violations the department responds to are for substandard housing, 66 percent of those in areas where calls for police service are common.

But area residents who lease property have so far decried the program as another money-grabbing attempt by the governing body. Reigning majority opinion among landlords was that the RHPP, depending on the Nov. 24 council decision, would have been an all-or-nothing deal: The council would either establish the program in full, they claimed, imposing unnecessary fines and fees on diligent landlords, or it would pass no ordinance at all.

According to Cole, his office, the council and representatives from the city’s code enforcement and fire departments met on Monday and fleshed out at least four alternatives to be presented at next month’s meeting. Their hope is that with full community feedback and involvement, a more precise program can be installed.

Of those alternatives, or any combination thereof, the RHPP could consist of what Cole calls “a high profile, intensified crackdown on the worst violators” of substandard housing properties in Ventura, a series of exterior-only inspections of those properties, mandatory interior and exterior inspections of rental units, or, if an impasse is reached, do nothing and return the project to the drawing board.

“I’m fairly certain we’ll come up with a hybrid,” he said.

Cole also clarified that it remains undetermined who might bear the cost if the RHPP is fully developed. Should the slumlord pay 100 percent of inspection fees? Can it be split between the rental housing industry and the general taxpayer? Or should the problem be ignored if nobody can afford to pay?

“What we thought was appropriate, given the amount of miscommunication,” explained Andrew Stuffler, the city’s chief building officer, “would be just bring the alternatives, but no formal ordinance is going to be brought forward. Given what we’ve heard of members of the community and the working group, we felt that was the prudent and fair thing to do.”

The working group was a small staff of advisers made up of people in the rental-property industry, assembled by Stuffler over the summer to examine the RHPP and its effectiveness. But by and large, their feedback weighed on the negative for different reasons. One of them: a general lack of specific involvement in the process.

“The criticism some of the stakeholders had was that the general public was not asked to join this group,” recounts Tag Gilbert, one of its members.

He added, “Tenants have had no clue on what may potentially impact them.”

“I don’t think there was really anybody in the room on that working committee who was in favor of the ordinance,” Bob Chatenever, a local property owner, recalled.

The bulk of the working group’s primary complaints are centered on cost. With fee increases this year on water rates, planning and permit fees, a technology fee and a much-maligned 911 tax, another additional rate was the last thing the advisory group wanted to see.

There are also those who’ve firmly believed the city’s powers-that-be employ enough code enforcement manpower to achieve their goals, and more.

“They already have sufficient organizational staff already established,” said Austin Coe, a Ventura property owner and lessor who was not a member of the study group. “If there’s anything already needed to be done, they can.”

Somewhere along the line, the group’s findings raised some red flags indicating the city’s intentions were set in stone. That’s where the miscommunication started, says Stuffler.

“What happened was, we got quite a few people under the impression the city is going to impose this program that’s onerous and invasive and all these things, and it’s not factual,” Stuffler said.

On top of that, according to Stuffler, the Apartment Owners’ Association of Los Angeles, in defending landlords and tenants, had weighed in with its publication of a series of inflammatory postcards maligning Ventura’s RHPP draft, further casting the project in an unflattering light.

“I think what people are reacting to is a view that there’s going to be a very expensive and intrusive bureaucracy. That’s not our goal or the purpose,” of the RHPP, said City Manager Cole. “Our purpose is to identify the right approach to deal with the slum housing we have now and make sure our older housing stock continues to be safe and decent.”

“It’s not discouraging, it’s encouraging,” Stuffler said. “I think we have a lot of people’s attentions.” The “less adversarial, more cooperative” approach is what officials are hoping the project’s reboot will achieve.

“That’s what we’re hoping for the eighth, to take some heat out of the argument,” he added.

“There’s got to be a way to get a handle on quality-of-life rental issues,” Christy Weir, Ventura’s mayor, said. “Our goal is to be able to do this without added fees. If there is, that would be our first choice.

“It’s natural for people to think that the city is just looking for more money,” she added. “That is absolutely not true.”

Property owner Coe remains hopeful but cautious on the new approach.

“It punches a hole in some of our arguments for the ordinance,” he said. “Something has intervened of a sufficient nature. It’s gained too much fire.”  

E-mail Paul Sisolak at paul@vcreporter.com