Watching the inspectors

It’s mixed results for other state housing-inspection programs

Architects of Sacramento’s proactive rental-housing-inspection pilot program are looking to lessons learned elsewhere as they consider if and how to expand current efforts. Interviews show that other California cities have tried to toughen code enforcement on substandard rental properties, and their various approaches have yielded mixed results.

In San Jose, where a proactive-inspection program has been in existence since 1960, Code Enforcement Supervisor Peggy Rollis said any building with three or more rental units is covered, and the city collects a fee of $33.65 per unit each year to pay the 11 inspectors who do routine inspections and respond to complaints. They visit each of the city’s 80,000 covered units once every six years.

Rollis said they have not met with resistance from landlords but occasionally a tenant will not let the inspectors inside.

“If they object, we make a visual assessment from the front door,” Rollis said. “If we think we see a potential problem, we can get a warrant.”

“We recommend that a property owner bring a bag of smoke-detector batteries so they can change it right then and there so we don’t have to write it up and have it go on public record,” said Rollis, “It saves us in administrative costs and it saves the tenant the nuisance of having to be available for another inspection.”

Some cities have experienced difficulties getting broad inspection measures passed. When Glendale, in Los Angeles County, designed a program six years ago, it called for mandatory inspections. But two weeks after the measure was adopted, the city encountered resistance from the local apartment owners’ association and quickly switched to a voluntary program.

“Even though it’s voluntary, participation stats for last year were about 90 percent,” Glendale officer Sam Engel said, adding that he expects the rate to decline as more landlords realize the program is voluntary and opt out.

One of the more recently adopted programs is Stockton’s. Beginning in 2007, all of the city’s rentals are scheduled for inspection at least once every four years, at a per-unit cost similar to the San Jose program. Certain units are eligible for self-certification by the landlords, which benefits them through reduced fees and fewer onsite inspections by city staff.

Instead of putting the onus on city officials to find violations, the city of Berkeley has a self-inspection program that requires property owners to complete an annual checklist provided by the city, then present results to their tenants. The checklist does not have to be turned in to the city, and city officers do not get involved unless they are responding to a tenant’s complaint. Years ago, Berkeley instituted a mandatory program, similar to San Jose’s, but pulled back after having trouble keeping up with the costs of conducting such extensive inspections.

Although proactive programs are cropping up elsewhere, Sacramento is the first in this region to come up with such a plan. Surrounding jurisdictions currently operate complaint-generated inspection programs, which code-enforcement officers in many of these cities said is adequate.

Jim Lynch, code-enforcement officer in Citrus Heights—where most of the housing stock was built in the early 1970s—said property owners are quick to remedy problems. “When you’re enforcing for something on the edge, people question you,” he said. “But with something serious like health and safety issues, we have a very high rate of compliance.”

In Davis, chief building official Mark Wood said violations in the college town are “generally less noxious, like cars parked on lawns or unkempt yards.” In Folsom and Roseville, where there is relatively little low-income housing, officials have not seen enough complaints to convince them that a more thorough program is necessary.

Still, code-enforcement supervisor Pete Piccardo of Folsom said he is curious to see how the proactive pilot program fares in Sacramento. “We’ll possibly piggyback on it,” Piccardo said. But, he conceded, “If we were to do a thorough rental-inspection program, we’d probably need to … have a larger staff.”

In Rancho Cordova, where rental units abound, code-enforcement officer Bob Stone acknowledged that his city’s reactive system is probably not catching all of the problems. “We have sufficient resources to take care of the complaints, but not of overall inspections,” Stone said. “I did a study once that showed that if five inspectors were doing this full time, it would take us five years to get through all our rental stock—before we had to start all over again.”