Rats, roaches & rights
New Sacramento inspection program attacks substandard rental-housing conditions
Linda Davis kept the kitchen of her Oak Park rental home immaculate, but that did not stop the mice from creeping in.
“I’m lying down on the sofa and they come out from under the TV set,” Davis, 59, said on a tour of her former home last month. “They come through the stove and up through the burners and they stay up in the stove, back and forth. Every day.”
Davis is a widow, a former medical assistant who has long been unable to work due to health problems. During the entire time she lived in the nondescript, boxy rental, she had numerous problems with the conditions there and complained repeatedly about them. The problems were not fixed, so she lived with mice, faulty wiring, problematic plumbing, unreliable heat and non-functioning smoke detectors for almost four years.
When city code-enforcement officials came through her neighborhood a few months ago, Davis found out that many of the conditions she knew about—and numerous others she never would have identified as problems—were violations of state housing code and potential hazards to the health of Davis, her children and young grandchildren who often spend time with her. She is among the first Sacramento tenants whose dwellings were inspected as part of a new strategy for keeping the city’s rental-housing stock from sinking into substandard conditions.Substandard rental housing has long been a serious problem in Sacramento, as in other cities with aging housing stock. As a rule, if a health or safety problem exists with a rental unit, code-enforcement officials do not find out about it unless someone calls to complain. A lot of people do call—renters themselves or concerned neighbors. The city gets about 180 calls a month, and officials say they respond to every one. Nearly 500 of the properties the city reviewed last year had minor code violations, and another 415 had serious problems. In 16 cases, conditions were so bad that the city ordered renters to move out, with relocation assistance from a city-funded program.
But critics say this complaint-driven system misses a lot of problems. Advocates say many tenants will not call because of language barriers, hesitance about government intervention, lack of awareness about potential relocation benefits or fear of eviction.
Last year, some City Council members and local housing advocates (led by Sacramento Mutual Housing Association) pushed for a program under which all of the estimated 75,000 apartments and rental homes in the city of Sacramento would be inspected every four years to determine whether they meet state standards.
Councilwoman Bonnie Pannell led the council charge. She was on two housing task forces, and a couple of years ago she visited several rentals inside Phoenix Park.
“Some of those units, I don’t know how people can live in those conditions,” Pannell recalled. “Missing cabinets, roaches, bathrooms not working. Those were some of the worst conditions I’ve ever seen people living in. And so I thought if folks are going to have investment property in the city of Sacramento, they need to be responsible for keeping it in livable condition.”
Reasons for concern
Over the past few years, fatal fires in Sacramento rental homes related to housing-code deficiencies received an outpouring of media attention and community concern. This past January, Annie and Kyle Biehl, ages nine and seven, died in their grandmother’s Avondale home. Fire officials determined that a working smoke detector might have saved their lives—there was one installed, but it did not have a battery.
In April 2005, a 7-year-old boy died when a tent pitched in a south Sacramento yard went up in flames. After the blaze, city code inspectors found more than a dozen violations at the site, including piles of junk surrounding the house on the lot, illegal electrical connections, a raw-sewage leak and peeling lead paint. City Code Enforcement Manager Ron O’Connor said many common violations—fire hazards, gas leaks, pest infestations—when unchecked and severe can become dangerous for tenants, and surrounding neighbors, as well.
Advocates claim these kinds of tragedies could have been avoided if the properties had been inspected routinely, an argument that has come up during debates over the citywide program.
After local landlord groups opposed the program, the council voted it down 5-3 and instead passed a pilot rental-housing-inspection program targeting slices of the Dixieanne and Oak Park neighborhoods in north and south Sacramento, respectively. These neighborhoods were chosen because they have high percentages of renter-occupied housing and historically high rates of substandard-housing cases, neighborhood code-enforcement cases and police calls. The one-year pilot was launched in October 2006 and was designed to be self-supporting. Rather than charging every property owner for each unit, the program would subsist on fines from delinquent landlords.
State housing law charges city and county governments with making sure their housing stocks meet health and safety requirements. In theory, the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development would oversee this, but in reality the agency does not have the time, staff or money to play the watchdog role. Assistant Deputy Director Ron Javor said most of HCD’s code-enforcement resources are allocated to making sure that new construction meets state standards.
As rental units age, state officials generally provide little oversight unless someone brings a case to court. A handful of local jurisdictions have created proactive programs to check every unit, but most wait for complaints to come to them before sending an inspector out.
It never occurred to Davis to approach the city about her substandard housing conditions. For her, withholding rent seemed like the most powerful option. Davis, who has long suffered from type 2 diabetes and is on Section 8 public-housing assistance, has trod this road before. She says she was evicted from a local rental home five years ago after withholding rent when owners would not address problems such as roof rats, mold and faulty plumbing.
At the recent Oak Park rental, Davis said there were four different owners during the time she lived there, none local, and she encountered a series of problems, including persistent infestation of mice. She said she feels the property is nothing more than an investment for out-of-towners who are more interested in improving their own living situations than those of their renters. Shortly after the current owners purchased the house where Davis lived, they moved into a new house of their own in the East Bay.
Angie Singh, who owns the rental with her husband, Sanjay, laughed when asked whether they let the property deteriorate to enhance their profits. “I don’t have a huge TV in my house. It’s not like that,” Singh said. The couple thought the two-unit building would be a good investment, but she said it has been nothing but trouble.
The Singhs have had problems of their own, she said. They were financially secure when they bought the property, but since have been faced with hefty medical bills because of family health issues. Still, Singh said she would never knowingly put her tenants in an unsafe situation.
Singh said she and her husband have a vested interest in making improvements to the rental property so that at some point in the future they will be able to sell it for a profit. “How would I sell that house if there’s not improvement in that house? But for me to show improvement, I have to have the money,” Singh said. “[Tenants] don’t pay rent on time, but the city doesn’t seem to care about these things. But I guess tenants have more rights than owners.”
The city charged the Singhs a $1,048 fee for exceeding the 30 days they had to fix the substandard conditions at the house. Singh said she appreciates what the city is trying to do for tenants, but does not like the idea of being unfairly punished in the process. “The city has a reason for these codes,” she said. “If they’re helping tenants, help us also. Don’t just look at one point of view.”
Complaints trigger evictions
On a typical business day, about 30 people call or visit the tiny Legal Services of Northern California office in the Alkali Flat area of downtown Sacramento to register complaints about the condition of their housing. But the agency believes many more renters with problems stay away.
“The fundamental problem with enforcement is that the current system relies upon the victims to come forward and complain,” said Bill Kennedy, lead attorney at the nonprofit. “Complaints trigger eviction, so very few are willing to complain because the alternative is homelessness. Tenants know very well that evictions are a one-strike offense. With an eviction on your record, it is very hard to find anyone who will rent to you.”
Max Fernandez, the city’s director of code enforcement, said citywide inspection of all rental units would help many tenants who are non-English speakers, poor and vulnerable to landlord retaliation. “A lot of people wouldn’t call [to complain], even over serious violations,” he said.
Is proactive inspection the solution in Sacramento? In mid-to-late August, council members will hear a progress report about the pilot program, which code-enforcement officials say will show it is working in some ways, but not others.
As part of the pilot program, city officials are working to find violations that otherwise would not have been reported. Through April 30, the pilot inspectors had looked at 876 rental units in the two neighborhoods. They left door hangers at well over half of those units, instructing tenants in English and several other languages to call with any problems, but got only a handful of responses. From their outside observations, however, they identified problems at 244 units, and from follow-up inspections they found violations inside 199 of those. Owners who get a notice to fix violations have 30 days to comply. Already, 37 of them have failed to respond in time.
More encouraging, officials say, is that many owners are pulling permits for corrective action soon after receiving letters telling them the inspectors will be by, rather than waiting to be cited.
Fiscally, however, the pilot is not working. The landlords are not charged any fees unless they go past the 30-day grace period to make fixes. The 37 fees charged, amounting to $35,920 in half a year, is not nearly enough to cover the cost of the program—$350,000 annually for three full-time employees, plus services and supplies. Barely any of those assessed fees have even been collected yet from owners, so the city’s general fund is taking the full hit.
After hearing the progress report, the council likely will discuss the possibility of expanding the pilot program to other parts of the city. Given the fiscal realities, a per-door charge to owners will become part of that conversation. Council members also may consider landlord self-certification strategies and random audits to boost the program’s reach and impact. (See “Watching the inspectors” on page 24.)
Doing the rounds
On a tree-lined block of Oak Park one crisp sunny day in March, inspector Bruce Holmes beckoned his supervisor, Pat Melanson, toward the front door of the weathered house, and they looked at it from the sidewalk. A short path and several steps led to the door, which was unsealed at the bottom, leaving a one-inch gap.
“Rats only need a half-inch,” Melanson said.
Holmes noted the problem on a standard form on his thick metal clipboard. There was already another note about faulty electrical wiring between the house and the garage. Melanson snapped photos of both. Holmes tore off the top white part of the carbon form and climbed the stairs to affix it to the wall just left of the front door with a piece of duct tape at each corner.
The uniformed duo spent two hours on a few blocks of Oak Park—peering into backyards, noting a loose drain pipe here or pointing out peeling paint over there. Fifteen of the 32 homes they passed were rentals, and just based on what they could see from the sidewalk they decorated nine with detailed violation notices. Holmes left the other six with bright green door hangers, telling the renters that while the property looked adequate from the outside, they should call about any concerns over the conditions within.
Each afternoon, the inspectors enter the information into their office computer and draft letters to the property owners about the violations of state codes for the health and safety of rental properties. The next step is a close look inside to check for other potential hazards.
While there are many factors that affect a person’s overall heath and well-being, Sacramento County Health Officer Glennah Trochet said there is an increasing body of evidence that substandard housing does harm the health of the people who live in it—particularly children, but also adults.
Mold and mildew can trigger asthma, as can mites carried by roaches and rats. Chipped lead paint is a carcinogen, and stoves in disrepair can release poisonous carbon monoxide into the breathing air. The list goes on.
Meeting with resistance
The Rental Housing Association of Sacramento Valley, which represents and educates rental owners and property managers, has been vocal in its opposition to mandatory inspections. “Let’s come up with something that doesn’t punish everyone, but rewards and makes examples of those doing a good job,” said Cory Koehler, deputy director of the RHA.
When the proposal for a citywide program was made public, the RHA and the Sacramento Association of Realtors proposed an alternate approach. The Realtors argued that the vast majority of city properties met legal standards, and that it was unnecessary for the city to inspect all units. The citywide program, which was to employ 14 staff, would have cost about $1.6 million per year—to be financed by a $21.75 per-unit-per-year fee charged to owners.
“We just didn’t feel it was an effective way to solve the real problems that do exist in substandard rental housing,” said Greg Vlasek of the Realtors’ group. “[The citywide program] penalized the landlord by requiring fees when they have no indication or record of any problems with their property.”
An alternate plan, backed by the landlord group, would have cost $694,000 per year for six staff, and owners would have paid $9.25 per unit per year. It recommended that every property manager inspect a unit at the beginning of tenancy and then again on an annual walk-through with a tenant. The RHA proposed an ongoing audit of 5 percent of the housing stock each year, but argued that the units picked for inspection should be limited to areas that had logged the most past complaints.
“If inspectors are spread so thin that they’re only inspecting a property every four years, it’s not an effective use of their time,” said Vlasek of SAR.
The City Council wound up abandoning its first proposal, and while it rejected the RHA’s version, it embraced a third proposal by staff for the pilot program.
Landlords and Realtors are hoping the pilot program will point to solutions short of an ordinance that would be more onerous to property owners.
“If we see improvements, which I think is happening, the program will be expanded,” said Koehler of the RHA. “Maybe it will go into Meadowview or maybe downtown. As long as it’s focused on those areas that have historic problems, I think that’s a good thing. We’ll just have to see.”
Dave Tanner, the SAR member actively working on a compromise with Vice Mayor Kevin McCarty’s office, said his group was not at odds with supporters of the inspection program. “We share the same goal: improving the quality of housing stock in the city of Sacramento,” he said. “We would never want to do anything that would interfere with that goal.”
McCarty wants the council to reconsider taking the pilot program citywide. He has been happy with some of its results, but feels the approach ultimately is fatally flawed, partly because it is based on the “drive-by test.” He has been toting around a large piece of white cardboard with oversized pictures from one of code enforcement’s files that shows the outside and the inside of a house in the College Greens neighborhood in his district. It looks pristine from the outside, but inside has a jumbled mess of exposed wiring connected to a heating unit in the living room.
“You would never trigger a secondary inspection driving by this,” McCarty said. “The bottom line is you can’t find out the condition of these units unless you get in, and with the pilot project you can’t get in all the units. We inspect hotels. We inspect restaurants. Heck, we even inspect beauty parlors and nail salons. But we don’t go inspect people’s property that they rent out for income?”
Some of the work city inspectors have done has confirmed McCarty’s drive-by theory. One of the Oak Park rentals they saw recently looked like a remodel job from the outside—immaculate. But the garage roof looked iffy, so they flagged it for a full inspection. Once inside, they found the water heater hooked up in a bedroom closet, exposing tenants to dangerous flames and fumes.
To gain the support of landlords, McCarty is seeking compromises, such as exempting large property owners who are subject to financing-related inspections from other oversight agencies, or allowing owners to live further outside of the city than currently stipulated before having to hire a local property manager. At an upcoming council meeting, he plans to ask his colleagues to reconsider a citywide program.
Councilwoman Sandy Sheedy, who represents the Dixieanne neighborhood covered by the pilot, opposed the citywide program last year.
“If it were 50 percent [of owners with unsafe units] then I’d say we should go citywide, but there’s just not that many bad actors out there,” Sheedy said. “And I just disagree that nobody calls in. If people are afraid of repercussions, they should know that if things are so bad in those units then there is help to relocate those tenants to another unit so the work can get done.”
Still, with the August council meeting approaching, Sheedy said she is open to considering expanding the pilot and possible landlord fees.
“I just don’t want to see 50 code-enforcement officers out on the march,” she said. “I don’t think that’s the city’s role to knock on every door and say that we’re inspecting.”
Testing out a theory
On the streets, the presence of the two pilot inspectors—one with a backpack slung over his shoulder, the other with a walkie-talkie on his belt—raised more than a few eyebrows on a block in Oak Park. From across the street, a man approached in a protective stance as the team paused in front of a house. The neighborhood resident was suspicious because the house the inspectors were loitering in front of was his sister’s house. They told him about the pilot program and he relaxed.
But a woman in pajama pants and bare feet stepped onto the front lawn and looked the two men over as they filled out forms. “Hey, what are you doing?” She softened when they explained themselves. “I appreciate you guys doing this,” she said.
Both inspectors previously worked with the city’s reactive-inspection program, going out on complaint calls. Both volunteered for the proactive pilot program.
“Our workload was the same before as it is now; we’re busy both ways,” Melanson said. “[But now] we’re walking around talking to people. You get a nice feel for the neighborhood. We get a lot of good feedback from [owners in the area]. We’re improving neighborhoods and property values and quality of life.”
But the changes the city wants Davis’ landlord to make did not come soon enough for her. Four months after the initial inspection of her house, she said the owner still had not yet remedied the violations. Because the Section 8 program will not pay rent on substandard property, Davis said she could not afford to stay in her house. On May 30, Davis moved to a new rental unit on 20th Avenue. Citing privacy issues, Section 8 officials with Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency declined to comment on the case.
Despite the upheaval, Davis favors expansion of the proactive inspection program because it helped identify substandard conditions in her home. “There are things the city has seen that I can’t see with the naked eye,” she said. “So it’s a good program that the city comes in.”
This article was produced for a course at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.