Broken homes

City council will consider forcing landlords to fix up their problem properties

An effort to hold slumlords accountable for substandard apartments and rental homes is coming before the Sacramento City Council on Tuesday.

The rental-inspection “pilot program” is supported by the Rental Housing Association of Sacramento Valley (RHA), the business association of area landlords. But affordable-housing advocates and some city-council members say the proposed law is far too weak.

Every year, thousands of apartments and rental units are identified by the city’s code-enforcement department as being “substandard.” There are problems with the wiring or water pressure, the roof leaks, there’s no heat, or the plumbing isn’t working.

“We had to demolish a place where the bathroom floor was falling in on the apartment below it. There were holes in the wall to the outside; there were holes next to the electrical outlets,” said Rachel Iskow with the Sacramento Mutual Housing Association, an organization that rehabilitates and develops affordable housing.

Thousands more go unreported.

“You can have a house that looks just fine from the outside, and inside some old guy is living in squalor,” said Councilman Kevin McCarty.

That’s because under the current system, rental units are inspected by the city only if somebody complains. That puts tenants in a difficult position. They may fear retaliation from a problem landlord if they complain. For the elderly, disabled or non-English-speaking residents, trying to navigate the code-enforcement bureaucracy can be an obstacle. Indeed, they might not even know that calling the city is an option.

The proposal coming before the city council on Tuesday would require inspections of apartments and other rental housing units in a few areas of the city that have the oldest and most dilapidated housing stock—neighborhoods within Oak Park, Del Paso Heights and South Sacramento are likely targets. Fees paid by landlords whose rental units aren’t up to snuff will pay for the two extra code-enforcement officers who will perform the inspections.

But the pilot program is considerably scaled back from an earlier proposal by Councilwoman Bonnie Pannell that would have required all rental-property owners in the city to submit to annual inspections of their housing units and to pay an annual fee for the program.

That proposal, however, was derailed by the RHA, which said the program would be too onerous to area property owners.

The annual inspection fee, about $22 per unit, “would be passed on directly to residents,” said Corey Koehler, a spokesperson for the RHA.

Koehler added that only a small percentage of the city’s 75,000 rental units have serious problems.

“We don’t believe there is a widespread substandard-housing issue in the city,” said Koehler.

But some council members, including McCarty, disagree with the RHA’s assessment of the housing problem. He notes that the city code-enforcement department estimates that only about half of the problem properties in the city are identified in any given year. “This pilot program is just a Band-Aid solution,” he said.

McCarty and Iskow are hopeful that the council will change direction and reject the pilot program in favor of a more aggressive citywide inspection program.

“You know, every single council member has complained at some time about problem properties in their district. It’s really a citywide problem,” said Iskow. “The only way to solve the problem is to get in there early and find out which landlords aren’t taking care of their properties.”