The kitchen might seem like a strange place to store skateboards and Christmas decorations. But it’s a logical use of space for Karina Villanueva, because she can’t use the cabinets for food.

Anything that’s not double-bagged and tucked into a heavy-duty storage box or the refrigerator will have cockroaches crawling in it come morning.

These plastic food tubs are one of several common threads linking tenants throughout the city who spoke with KPBS and Voice of San Diego late last year for this joint investigation. All of them rent from Bankim Shah, a San Diego man who owns nearly 90 properties in the region and manages apartments for several others. His name rose to the top as one of San Diego’s worst offenders in a review of 2013 code compliance complaints.

Renting? Look up code complaints by address.

Residents, neighbors and city staff have filed 62 complaints against him since 2001, about a third of them for conditions so bad state law says no one should be forced to live in them.

The complaints detail gas leaks, sewage backups, missing windows and armies of roaches, or as one attorney put it, “enough to carry the whole house away.”


We Stand Up For You. Will You Stand Up For Us?

But those complaints haven’t gone far – another common thread.

Repeated requests for repairs through Shah and his managers have netted few substantive improvements, tenants said. In a brief phone call, Shah said he acts quickly when tenants ask for repairs, but failed to follow through with an offer to provide KPBS and Voice of San Diego with proof.

And stacks of formal complaints against Shah show the city’s essentially playing a game of whack-a-mole. The city’s code enforcement team knocks out thousands of isolated complaints a year, but does little to hold repeat offenders accountable.

‘We Should Not Be Degraded’

For Villanueva, the roaches are the least of her worries. She’s learned to cope, wiping down surfaces with bleach morning and night. Her sons, ages 7 and 4, have gotten used to the roaches, too.

“Before it was like, ‘No! There’s a cockroach!'” Villanueva said. “‘Now they’re like, ‘Whatever.'”

But Villanueva couldn’t ignore the mold.

Three months after she, her husband and their sons moved into the Barrio Logan studio in 2010, mold spots began to appear on the bathroom wall. She tried to remove them with bleach, but the cleanings stripped the paint and revealed walls covered in dark mold. Shah had simply painted it over before they moved in, Villanueva said.

Her husband asked for something to be done each time he dropped off their rent check. When that didn’t work, they had an attorney write to management and began withholding rent. Still, no repairs.

inspector-pqThen last summer, Villanueva called the city.

“(The inspector) was like, ‘Whoa! Don’t even take a shower here! Can you keep your door closed all the time so it won’t go toward your kids?'”

Villanueva said the inspector then told her to Google mold, saying he could only do something about the apartment’s missing smoke detector.

Villanueva said the inspector’s warning was too little, too late. Her family doctor had confirmed the mold was likely worsening her 7-year-old’s asthma. He went from taking one medication to seven. He missed weeks of school. At one point, Villanueva said, he had to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance.

So Villanueva began organizing her neighbors.

Down the hall, Sherry Godat was living with a missing window. A friend finally installed some plywood in the frame to get her through the winter. Below Godat, workers took days to replace another tenant’s toilet. The family was using the bathroom at the gas station down the street. And across town, Rosa Bergara was spending $30 a week on mousetraps. A fist-sized hole in the exterior wall of her apartment let rats come and go as they pleased.

degraded-pg

“Even though this is what we can afford, we should not be degraded, and that’s what I feel like (Shah) is doing,” said Godat. She’s on disability and rented an apartment owned by Shah because it’s the only thing that fits her budget. “He’s saying, ‘This is what you guys deserve because you can’t afford anything better.'”

But the law says otherwise.

‘There’s Really No Reason To Fear Code Compliance’

The California Health and Safety Code lays out a long list of hazards that make a rental unfit for tenants – big things like lacking electricity or water down to the seemingly innocuous things, like dampness in rooms, that lead to problems over time. And it gives local code enforcement units the power to do anything from press civil and criminal charges to seize property to remediate those hazards.

But San Diego isn’t doing that when it comes to Shah. Tours of five of his buildings and a review of city inspection forms reveal conditions that violate the state housing code. In some cases, they’re still present after a code inspector has closed his or her case on the property.

As recently as December, Shah’s apartments, which he rents through his company All Property Management, had broken windows, lacked hot water and heating, had water leaks and dampness, were infested with insects and rodents, had holes in exterior walls and between units and lacked smoke detectors. All are prohibited by state law.

The map below shows Bankim Shah’s properties and details code compliance complaints against them. Properties marked in red indicate possible substandard conditions. Those in yellow have complaints for other kinds of violations, typically related to commercial zoning rules. Blue properties have no complaints or complaint data is unavailable.

 

Marc Whitham, an attorney who’s worked with Villanueva, said there’s a familiar pattern to the city’s enforcement that lets the illegal conditions persist: Tenants call code compliance for help with a slew of housing law violations; an inspector comes out; the landlord knocks out a few of the cheaper, more obvious fixes (almost always adding a $10 smoke detector); and less than a year later, the symptoms of severe structural damage (the roaches and mold) come back. The cycle starts anew as if the city weren’t already aware of the property.

“There’s really no reason why landlords need to fear code compliance,” Whitham said.

Part of the problem, said deputy director of code compliance Mike Richmond, is that state law doesn’t let his staff enforce rules against infestations and mold.

But that’s not entirely true.

A 2013 law authored by local State Sen. Ben Hueso deputized code enforcement officers to police roach, bed bug and rodent infestations, a fact Richmond wasn’t aware of. And last year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed another Hueso bill that lets enforcement officers require landlords to exterminate pests and fix the underlying cause of infestations (typically water leaks). Hueso said National City and several cities throughout the state have already implemented the changes.

“It’s distressing after all the work that has been done in this area to try to give the cities the tools they need to hold people accountable,” Hueso said. “When the city cannot go in and correct a situation that is harming people’s lives, it is a big problem.”

And while the housing law doesn’t say which kind of mold or how much is illegal, tthe California Department of Public Health has been advising cities since 2011 that they can enforce laws against water leaks as a means to address mold.

But San Diego code enforcement officers continue to tell tenants like Villanueva there’s nothing they can do about roaches and mold. Their policy, said Richmond, is to refer tenants to the county. A spokesman from the county’s Land Use and Environment Group said the county does not have an agreement with the city to handle such violations. Its inspectors will not take action against landlords in the city of San Diego, the spokesman said.

Whitham said the excuses point to a deeper problem – an unwillingness to make an example of problem landlords.

“I have no doubt in my mind that if you call out some of the worst offenders and say, ‘These laws matter and you will meet the full force and weight of the city attorney’s office if you do not believe so,’ would change things,” Whitham said.

Rooting Out Violations Where No One Lives

The only time the city has taken Shah to court was in 2011 for renting a building to a medical marijuana dispensary. But more than a decade of tenant complaints against Shah and a 2013 email obtained through a public records request confirm the city is aware of other issues with his properties.

The email is from a city environmental health inspector to Shah regarding a pile of mattresses in the alley off of one of his Normal Heights buildings.

“The items must be removed,” the email says, and not “simply transferred to another one of your 26 properties.”

Shah didn’t respond to several interview requests, but said over the phone he’s actively maintaining his many properties. He said it’s up to the tenants to call in their concerns and respond to his notices requesting access to their units.

Indeed, there appeared to be several repair trucks and handymen present during visits to his properties. But multiple tenants at those addresses pointed out active roach infestations, missing windows and sagging floors. They also pulled out stacks of photos showing a large hole between first- and second-floor bathrooms, handymen installing new linoleum over live termites and roaches in a child’s cereal bowl.

Abraham_Hole

Abraham Rojas shows that a hole beneath his sink leads outside. His wife says she spends $30 a week on mousetraps because vermin can come and go freely. // Photos by Brian Myers, Media Arts Center San Diego

 

When asked why the city has not built a substantial case against Shah for maintaining known substandard conditions in his apartments, Richmond said that’s not how the system works.

“With our current staffing levels, we don’t really have an ability to be proactive, where we’re going out searching around for things,” Richmond said. “If there are problems out there, we’ll get a report and then we’ll open a case and go and investigate it. But we have to look at every case individually.”

The city attorney’s office has stepped in, asking various other landlords to resolve particularly egregious situations – people living without toilets and electricity. The majority of those cases were settled out of court for administrative fees and relocations costs for the tenants. But Deputy City Attorney Gabriela Brannan said her office cannot take Shah to task for multiple violations unless code compliance identifies a pattern of abuses.

“We handle cases according to how they’re referred to us by code enforcement,” Brannan said. “We need evidence. We need somebody to gather that evidence for us so we rely on the (code enforcement) investigators to do that.”

Cockroach

Cockroaches in a child’s cereal bowl. // Photo courtesy of Sherry Godat

 

There are situations where code compliance has proactively rooted out violations – they’re just at properties where no one lives.

Inspectors have cracked down on blighted, foreclosed homes in southeastern San Diego, visiting thousands of boarded-up homes and collecting fees from the banks that own them. And they’ve waged a high-profile campaign against medical marijuana dispensaries, opening 103 such cases during fiscal year 2014.

“The city attorney has showed that if you want to make something a priority, you can,” said Councilman David Alvarez.

While Alvarez helped set the current enforcement priorities by joining in the call for a heavy hand on illegal dispensaries and authoring the foreclosure ordinance, he said it’s time to shift gears.

Alvarez has asked the mayor to boost code compliance funding this year so the department can proactively address substandard housing. He also asked the Council’s land use committee to explore a program that would put liens on properties until the owners clean them up.

Alan Pentico, executive director of the San Diego Apartment Association, a trade organization for landlords, said any new rules should take into account that most property owners run into compliance issues on accident.

“It’s not easy to manage property, especially in California. There’s a lot of rules and a lot of things that change on a regular basis,” Pentico said.

But he said flagrant disregard of the housing code is unacceptable.

“There are laws and we have to follow them,” Pentico said.

SherryGodat

Sherry Godat reveals a plywood board in her window frame. She says her landlord, Bankim Shah, promised to replace the missing window before she moved in. A friend installed the plywood after months passed with no repairs. // Photo by Brian Myers, Media Arts Center San Diego

‘When Everyone Just Moves, Communities Fracture’

So, what would proactive code enforcement look like? Villanueva has seen it, but not from code compliance.

When the Fire Department arrived with medics to take her son to the hospital, they noticed the fire extinguisher in a communal hallway had expired. They called Shah and asked him to replace it right away.

As for the issues inside her apartment, Shah finally replaced the moldy drywall last September – four years after Villanueva first alerted management of the problem, a year after attorneys got involved and three months after a code inspector came to her apartment.

The ordeal was over, but not before one last insult. Shah’s workers dragged the contaminated materials through the 250-square-foot space uncovered, the dust and spores igniting one final asthma flare-up, Villanueva said.

In December, Villanueva moved her family into a brand-new affordable housing development. In a phone call earlier this month, she said her sons have stopped using their asthma inhalers altogether.

But it’s not the happy ending Villanueva was hoping for. Like all Shah tenants who spoke with KPBS and Voice of San Diego, she had hoped she could stick it out until every last repair was made.

“I don’t want this to happen to other people,” Villanueva said. “It’s not fair for people to live like this.”

And Whitham said it’s not a satisfactory resolution in terms of public policy, either.

“The problem is not just the individual family that’s having to put up with the cockroaches. It’s their neighbors, and their neighbors and the neighborhood,” Whitham said. “When everybody is expected to just move on every 18 months, children have to change schools, it causes poor performance in school, you don’t get to know your neighbors, that causes communities to fracture, it causes increased crime rates.

“When we don’t have the will as a city to do something about the housing stock that we know is decaying right beneath our feet, then how can we expect communities to thrive?”

    This article relates to: Government, Housing, Must Reads

    Written by Megan Burks

    Megan Burks is a reporter for Speak City Heights, a media project of Voice of San Diego, KPBS, Media Arts Center and The AjA Project. You can contact her directly by emailing meburks@kpbs.org.

    14 comments
    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    There are several incompetent, unresponsive Departments in San Diego city government, including the Street Division, Stormwater and Parks and Recreation.  This one, by far, heads the list.

    Anyone who has tried to get Code Compliance to do it's job, and  in a timely manner, will tell you horror stories.  My wife is on our local Planning Board, and tells me matters referred by the board concerning setback violations, construction without permits, etc. are often simply not investigated.  This bunch needs a thorough housecleaning.  If our mayor is a serious aspirant to statewide office, he'd better fix this chronic problem.

    Ann B. Cottrell
    Ann B. Cottrell subscriber

    As chair of the College Area Community Council’s Code Enforcement Committee, I laud this report.  The College Area is also frustrated by the “whack a mole” approach to Code Enforcement.  The College Area has 700 High Turnover High Occupancy rentals  (HTHO aka “minidorms”)  While “our” violations generally don’t reach the health hazards reported in this story, HTHO owners regularly violate city codes and violations come disproportionately from owners of multiple properties.  Just one example: an owner with 12 properties has had 39  code violations. Clearly they know the rules and are ignoring them.  CACC is well aware that Code Enforcement is short staffed and we welcome Mayor Faulconer’s pledge to increase staffing.  Our position is and has been that  multiple violations by a single owner be treated collectively and have more serious consequences.  Code Enforcement officers should not have  to revisit and revisit a single owner’s properties for the same violation.  Such an owner and all properties should be dealt with as a single case with much higher penalties for repeat vioations. Hopefully that would encourage compliance and increase Code Enforcement efficiency.

    Michael Robertson
    Michael Robertson subscribermember

    Why is anyone surprised that government housing is low quality? These are just the next generation hosting projects.

    Government is paying for them and responsible for oversight. Since government is always a low quality operator, the service and quality is low.

    If government bought people cards and was responsible for their upkeep can you imagine how crappy this cars would be?

    The solution is to get government out of the housing business. Let the free market operate.

    marc whitham
    marc whitham

    @Michael Robertson The  apartments shown in this report are not government housing.  They are privately owned.  There is actually almost no government owned housing in San Diego.  Almost all of the money that the federal government supplies to low income tenants comes through the Section 8 voucher program administered by the Housing Commission.  

    marc whitham
    marc whitham

    I was really honored to be able to participate in this story.  Megan did a wonderful job exposing a serious problem.  I have a lot of thoughts on the subject, but I can't fit them here.  For anyone interested, here is the link to my blog post. 


    http://wp.me/p1zSLt-13x

    Richard Lawrence
    Richard Lawrence subscriber

    What ever happened to Rocky Neptun and his Tenants Union?

    Richard Lawrence
    Richard Lawrence subscriber

    How come our Mayor will call a news conference and assail the Chargers for bad faith in handling the ball on talks about a football stadium but is silent in the face of this kind of bad faith in his own Code Enforcement Department?

    Is it possible that a class action lawsuit is needed to assure that tenants in this City receive the support they need to make certain Code Enforcement address abuses by landlords such as Mr. Shah?

    Matty Azure
    Matty Azure subscriber

    Rats. Roaches. Shah.

    Signed,

    All the same species

    DavidM
    DavidM subscriber

    An excellent story, which unfortunately only touches the surface of one slumlord. 


    As a lawyer defending tenants in eviction proceedings, I can attest that the problems are not limited to San Diego, or even to the slow enforcement of existing statutes and ordinances by San Diego Code Enforcement Officers.  In La Mesa, Code Enforcement has never, not once, inspected a property in a timely manner.  They actually write a letter and ask permission, upon which the landlord quickly applies cosmetic fixes. County inspectors will condemn property, forcing the tenants to vacate and ordering relocation expenses, but there is no enforcement mechanism to force payment; the effect is homelessness (sometimes of entire families).


    And San Diego?  They sometimes are more interested in recovering their fines and permit fees for work rather than ensuring that problems are actually corrected.


    And when matters make it into Court the judges routinely find that habitability issues are not "significant enough."  Judge Meyer ruled that a red tagged heater (SDG&E refused to light it as unsafe) was not a habitability issue in San Diego County; "if it gets cold you can buy a space heater."  He ruled that rats scampering in the attic at night did not need to be abated because "they're everywhere; they live in the citrus trees and the trees are everywhere."  Despite statutory and regulatory guidelines for landlords, the supply of proper housing is either too limited or too expensive.  

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    Great report, Megan.  Anyone who has attempted to get Neighborhood Code Compliance to take enforcement action has stories like these, but some of this stuff is simply inexcusable.  This organization badly needs a shakeup, and someone needs to set priorities.  

    Mike
    Mike subscriber

    It's sad to hear that the enforcers in city hall aren't even aware of the laws they are suppose to enforce. I'm all for supporting the government to help strengthen the community, but this level of incompetence only adds fuel to the Tea Party fire.

    It's funny to hear the lawyers blaming a lack of resources to take these slumlords to court. Have they forgotten they took an average guy to court for making chalk drawings on the sidewalk?

    Benjamin Katz
    Benjamin Katz subscribermember

    Where's Bonnie Dumanis? 


    There's clearly behavior here that could be criminally prosecuted. I'm not an attorney, but it fraud & child endangerment charges seem like they could easily be filed.

    Felix Tinkov
    Felix Tinkov subscribermember

    The tools exist within the current San Diego municipal code to fine this alleged slumlord millions of dollars (over the entire expanse of his property holdings) and/or prosecute him criminally - a little jail time can go a long way in changing a bad actor's perspective.


    In fact, code enforcement can use its investigations to start what is known as an abatement procedure on each of the delinquent properties.  Per San Diego Municipal Code section 121.0401 et.seq., the dangerous and substandard conditions described in this article authorize the City to relocate the tenants and either bring the property up to code or demolish it altogether all at the expense of the landlord.  Of course, this takes work, including hearings and possible several court appearances.  But given the expense to the landlord in such an instance (i.e. hiring an attorney), oftentimes just this threat is enough to force a slumlord into action.


    With all respect to Mike Richmond, whom I know to be a good and honorable person, and Gabriela Brannan, whom I do not know, the problem is not a lack of resources and evidence.  At least, not completely.  The difficulty I have observed is a lack of priorities.  My experience has been that a person accused of having an overheight fence is given the same attention as a slumlord running a roach-infested dwelling.  


    Most recently, marijuana dispensaries and AirBnB rentals have caught the attention of the Code Enforcement division.  Yet, hundreds, if not thousands, of substandard dwellings continue to exist in this city.  Prioritizing the truly bad actors could make a real difference in how this city runs and hows its entire population lives.


    To that end, my suggestion would be that the City Council create a policy which delineates the order of priority for enforcement.  With the vote of five Councilmembers and the stroke of several pens, poor folks in this town can get a leg up and slumlords can be forced to fly right. So who wants to be the hero?

    DavidM
    DavidM subscriber

    @Felix Tinkov  "my suggestion would be that the City Council create a policy which delineates the order of priority for enforcement.  With the vote of five Councilmembers and the stroke of several pens, poor folks in this town can get a leg up and slumlords can be forced to fly right."


    Excellent observations and suggestion.  The City Attorney has no problem using code enforcement mechanisms against politically disfavored targets; wouldn't it be wise to use that authority for the huge numbers of tenants affected by the slumlords in this County?