The real estate market must really be improving; this Tuesday, real estate agents crowded the Santa Barbara City Council chambers and adjoining overflow room to complain that the mandatory Zoning Information Reports prepared by City Hall employees whenever properties change hands cost too much ($465), take way too long (as many as 40 days), and too frequently are flat-out wrong.
The council heard horror stories detailing how inaccuracies and omissions in these reports have put home sellers in a regulatory crossfire with dire consequences. One man who owns a property with three rental units lamented he’ll be forced to evict one set of residents because city inspectors recently concluded that his property on East Arellaga Street is zoned for only two units. Prior to his most recent inspection report, he said, city records dating back 50 years indicated the property was zoned to allow three.
One schoolteacher said he and his wife were forced by hard times to sell the home they purchased in 2007 only to discover the mandated Zoning Information Report revealed that their front porch had been converted by a prior owner to garage space without the necessary permits. He said a zoning inspection report from 1997 revealed the problem, but the subsequent inspections conducted in 2002 and 2007 didn’t mention it at all. This gap in the red tape created enforcement issues with City Hall, he said, when he and his family were under the gun financially; he estimated this wound up costing him $15,000. “I feel that $15,000 was stolen from us and from our daughter,” he said. Not all such stories were so dramatic; many involved city inspectors — described by several speakers as nitpicky, inflexible, and arbitrary — finding washers and dryers, for example, installed without proper paperwork.
Councilmember Dale Francisco and Mayor Helene Schneider put the issue on the agenda at the behest of the Santa Barbara Board of Realtors, which for the past four years has been meeting with city planners to craft an acceptable compromise. But according to Bob Hart, an executive with the Realtor board, those talks have failed to bear fruit. Because of this, he’s arguing the zoning enforcement reports should be made optional rather than mandatory and opened up to private contractors, rather than city employees, to complete.
With home sales rising, he said, city staff can’t meet the demand, and some realtors have reported being told it could take 40 days for reports to be done. The ordinance requires they be completed within 15 business days. Back in the 1970s, when the ordinance was first proposed, the realtors supported the reports. Back then, Hart said, they cost $25 a pop and took a couple of days to complete. Not only are Santa Barbara’s the most expensive in the state, he said, but they’re redundant, often inaccurate, and not designed to ferret out serious health and safety issues so much as illegal second units and unpermitted construction.
“If I put in modifications without permit I would be grateful to have a voluntary ordinance,” she said.
One real estate agent, Matt Vaughan, argued the mandated reports discriminated against poor people because poor people disproportionately occupy such illegal dwellings. Hart said that today, no less than 40 disclosure reports are prepared for the sale of every home. “It’s no longer a case of ‘Let the buyer beware,’” he said. Most of the speakers agreed with him. One termed the status quo “Kafkaesque.” But Sarah Wildwood, a real estate agent of nine years, urged the council to keep the reports mandatory. She warned about the negative impact of illegal conversions and unpermitted second units — euphemistically referred to, she said, as “guest houses” — on neighborhood character and public safety. “If I put in modifications without permit I would be grateful to have a voluntary ordinance,” she said.
Councilmember Grant House got a warm round of applause when he repeatedly expressed incredulity that City Hall could issue inaccurate zoning information reports and not be held legally accountable for the mistake. To change the ordinance would require a five-vote supermajority, and the votes were clearly not there to repeal the ordinance. (Councilmember Frank Hotchkiss, a real estate agent, recused himself.) Instead, the matter will be dumped on the council’s Ordinance Committee, chaired by House.
For starters, House suggested that City Hall change its default position when there’s a conflict in inspection record. No longer should it be incumbent upon the property owners to prove — often at great expense — that they’re correct; instead, he said, it should be up to city planners to prove their case.