San Mateo County now has a tool to help those renters who county officials say they have found living in "spaces that were never meant for human habitation," including welded cages in a warehouse, in closets and in storage lockers.
A new ordinance approved by the county's Board of Supervisors that goes into effect March 16 says that when tenants are found living in unsafe, illegal or substandard conditions, landlords must help pay costs for them to relocate to new housing.
The ordinance was given final approval by the supervisors at their Feb. 14 meeting.
The relocation benefits will pay for temporary housing if the existing housing can be made safe within 90 days. Otherwise the benefits will help pay the costs of finding permanent replacement housing.
Assistant County Manager Mike Callagy said the new ordinance began with the basic premise that "you shouldn't have to risk your life to be housed in this county."
The ordinance is "very narrowly tailored to specific situations" in which people are living in an illegal structure, or a legal structure that is unsafe because of building code violations, he said.
Mr. Callagy said problems include bare wiring and lack of ventilation, exposing residents to carbon monoxide.
"People are in dire need of housing and they're willing to live anywhere," he said.
County Building Official Miles Hancock said units have been found with no heat and makeshift showers and toilets.
"This ordinance sends a clear message to those who have chosen to take advantage of tenants" by renting substandard housing, Mr. Callagy said. "There will be consequences."
Deputy County Counsel Brian Kulich said previously, if someone was found to be renting units with "severe code violations" that required tenants to move out, either the tenants or the county ended up paying the moving costs. "This is a particular burden for low-income tenants," he said.
"We want to change that," he said. "We want to hold that property owner responsible."
David Carducci, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County, said such unsafe living conditions are "one of the biggest problems we are seeing."
"Every week I'm seeing people come and tell us stories about the kind of thing you're talking about today," he said. He heard from a woman and her teenage son living in a closet, and many others in "overcrowded, unsafe, unsanitary conditions," he said.
Many such situations are never reported because tenants do not want to lose their homes, he said.
The supervisors unanimously approved the ordinance, but gave it a one-year sunset date at the suggestion of Supervisor Warren Slocum, who said there could be "potential unexpected consequences to this policy."
Supervisor Don Horsley said trying to improve housing conditions "is one of the reasons I ran for the board." He said the county found people in Princeton living in old Muni buses with no sanitation, no heating and no power, and in dry-docked boats.
The law has an appeal process and exceptions for cases in which the condition was created by the tenants or their guests, or by an accident or a natural disaster.
Tenants who will be displaced for more than 90 days will receive three months of rent at the federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) fair market rate, plus up to $1,000 for moving costs and related expenses.
Those who are temporarily displaced will be repaid their costs of the displacement up to the maximum of what would be paid for a permanent displacement.
Those who must move out in fewer than 30 days can get an additional $1,000.
If a landlord does not pay the tenant, the county may make the payments and be reimbursed, including administrative costs, plus penalties.