City set to offer amnesty program letting landlords bring illegal housing units up to code

In an effort to bolster Long Beach’s affordable housing stock, the City Council gave preliminary approval Tuesday to an ordinance that would let property owners bring certain illegal housing units up to code instead of forcing tenants to vacate them.

The program, which could be finalized as soon as next week, would allow illegally converted dwellings or other un-permitted living quarters to remain in use as long as they’re brought up to health and safety standards and the owner agrees to cap rent on the unit for at least 10 years.

To qualify, the rent cap must be set at no more than 30% of the moderate income level as determined by the area median income, which is about $77,300, according to figures released in April by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

By that metric, a two-person moderate-income household could be charged 30% of their monthly income for rent ($1,855). The federal government has set 30% of monthly income as the mark at which a person is rent burdened.

If a current tenant makes less than what is considered moderate income in the area, the rental rates would be tied to their income levels. A household of two making $50,000 per year could be charged $1,200 per month under the proposed ordinance.

The amnesty would only be offered for units that were in existence and occupied for 30 days straight prior to the end of December 2016. City officials are hopeful that the new program can help meet the city’s housing goals of creating 26,000 units by 2029.

It’s unclear how many illegal units exist in the city or how many landlords will come forward to take advantage of the amnesty process. City staff said they’d been alerted to about 157 cases of housing permitting issues over the past eight months.

Typically those cases would end in a punitive fashion, with the housing units being removed to bring the original building back into compliance.

“That’s not a good public policy outcome for anyone,” said Chris Koontz, the deputy director of the city’s development services department. “We do feel that one of the benefits of this ordinance is that this gives us a relief valve. It gives the owner a way to legalize the unit that doesn’t exist today.”

Koontz said that the program would be voluntary and that owners of units who wanted to participate would be encouraged to reach out to a third-party inspector or architect to ascertain how much it would cost to bring the unit into compliance.

That way, an owner could decide whether the cost of bringing the unit up to code was manageable before revealing the illegal dwelling to the city.

“We’re trying to design a program that incentivizes bringing units out of the shadows,” Koontz said.

The proposed ordinance received unanimous support from the City Council, with members applauding the item’s potential to fix possibly dangerous units while simultaneously adding to the city’s affordable housing supply over the next decade.

“Most of these units are already built out, occupied and they’re substandard,” said Councilman Rex Richardson. “They’re not safe. This actually brings these units out of the shadows and makes them safe.”

The council is expected to formally approve the ordinance at its next meeting on Jan. 12.

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Jason Ruiz has been covering City Hall for the Post for nearly a decade. A Long Beach resident, Ruiz graduated from Cal State Long Beach with a degree in journalism. He and his wife Kristina and, most importantly, their dog Mango, live in Long Beach. He is a particularly avid fan of the Dallas Cowboys and the UCLA Bruins, which is why he sometimes comes to work after the weekend in a grumpy mood.