Slumming it

Sacramento still feels its way on rental-home-inspection program

Housing inspectors Bruce Holmes (left) and Pat Melanson go down their code checklist in Oak Park earlier this summer. They may be getting help soon.

Housing inspectors Bruce Holmes (left) and Pat Melanson go down their code checklist in Oak Park earlier this summer. They may be getting help soon.

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

As previously reported (“Rats, roaches and rights,” SN&R Feature Story, July 12), code inspectors with the year-long pilot program have been working since October 2006 to identify substandard living conditions in rental homes and apartments in slices of the Dixieanne and Oak Park neighborhoods. Unsafe electrical and plumbing connections, missing or broken smoke detectors and lack of weather protection have been among the most common problems found.

In a recent public conversation characterized by an odd mix of consensus and contention, members of the Sacramento City Council praised the program’s successes and indicated unanimous support for the expansion.

“What we have here in front of us is a program that almost everyone in the room wants, but we’re arguing about it anyway,” said Mayor Heather Fargo, about 90 minutes into the two-hour-plus debate.

Fargo was referring to a plan that would look at every rental parcel in the city over a four- or five-year period. This means all rental homes and 10 percent of all rentals at any property site (with a minimum of one at each) would get checked over that time. The program would follow the pilot’s approach of doing close external inspections, following up with looks inside only for those properties with apparent problems. Inspectors leave door hangers at properties that look fine from the outside, with a message in several languages encouraging them to call with any complaints.

The new proposal includes potential exemptions for new construction and units inspected by other authorities if such inspections meet city standards, as well as a voluntary, fee-reducing self-certification process for owners and random city audits to assure compliance. This plan would bump the pilot-program staff of three up to a crew of about 20.

Sacramento Mutual Housing Association and Sacramento ACORN turned out more than a dozen people to support the plan, and several owners and renters spoke in favor, as well. Lobbyists for the Sacramento Board of Realtors and the Sacramento Rental Housing Association were also in support, though when the RHA’s Cory Koehler questioned the utility of internal inspections, some heated debate ensued.

The key disagreement on the council dais was over whether to have staff bring an ordinance for the citywide program straight back, or to send it first to the law and legislation subcommittee. Council members Kevin McCarty, Lauren Hammond and Bonnie Pannell said they feared the subcommittee could be used to stall or kill the plan, and all voted against the motion by Council member (and subcommittee chairperson) Sandy Sheedy to send it to law and legislation first. Councilmen Ray Tretheway, Steve Cohn and Rob Fong joined Mayor Fargo in supporting Sheedy’s motion. Councilman Robbie Waters was absent.

While effective in unearthing and righting health and safety violations that might otherwise have gone unreported, the pilot program hasn’t even come close to paying for itself as had been hoped. Of the 970 units inspected in the first six months, 356 had violations and 318 of those were fixed within the month allowed. That’s great results, but the catch is that the program only charges fees to those fewer-than-expected negligent owners who exceeded the 30-day window. The city’s general fund has taken a large hit making up the deficit.

The law and legislation subcommittee will hash out the details about the fees to be charged to landlords to fund the new citywide program.

Sheedy told staff she hopes that as they draft the new ordinance, they will find a way to inspect properties with known problems (previous code violations, multiple police and fire calls, etc.) early in the cycle. The pilot program neighborhoods were chosen based on those criteria.