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Too often, substandard housing issues continue even after residents log their complaints. Failing our people like this means dangerous conditions continue, and only makes it harder to get nervous tenants to trust government again.
Earlier this month a father with two children living in Logan Heights called my office. In a quiet voice, he told my staff about the condition of his home. Cockroaches everywhere; walls marked with holes, broken windows, floors in disrepair, doors that wouldn’t close, a leaky bathroom with mold spreading. The caller was worried about the health impacts on his two young children. He confided that, lacking health insurance, he took his crying three-month-old son to a friend who pulled a cockroach from the infant’s ear.
This is just one of the many substandard housing stories I hear on a weekly basis from my staff or from constituents themselves. In my district, and across the city, too many of our residents are living without running water or heat. Many have to raise their children in homes with bug or rat infestations, dangerous electrical wiring and crumbling lead paint.
My staff and I proactively reach out to constituents to find and fix these problems. We build trust with residents, take down their concerns, and pass them on to the city’s Neighborhood Code Compliance Division. The division handles a wide range of issues, from leaking sewage to graffiti, noise complaints to illegal marijuana dispensaries. The sheer volume of complaints means that investigators don’t generally patrol for violations – they react as they are able.
The code compliance division has many complaints to respond to. Unfortunately, too often when we follow up with residents, we find that substandard housing issues continue even after the complaint is logged. Failing our residents like this means dangerous conditions continue, and only makes it harder to get nervous tenants to trust government again.
That’s why I joined with my City Council colleagues Marti Emerald and Myrtle Cole in issuing our joint Budget Priorities Memorandum to call for increased staffing levels for code compliance inspectors to boost enforcement priorities. We live in the eighth largest city in the country, and yet we have few inspectors dedicated to finding and fixing the substandard housing complaints that make residents unsafe in their own homes.
To ensure that the complaints I hear become few and far between, I’ll be working with the mayor’s office and code compliance division staff to identify needs and staffing gaps. I’ve also reached out to the city attorney’s office, which houses a critical partner in the process: a small unit that handles the most egregious substandard housing complaints through administrative action as well as civil and criminal proceedings.
The Code Enforcement Unit uses our municipal code and state housing law to require repair or demolition of structures when the safety of residents or the public is endangered. In most circumstances, if demolition or repair is ordered, the city can also compel the owner to pay the tenants’ relocation expenses.
This is a critical piece of resolving these violations. Many tenants stay silent in the face of unimaginable conditions, because they simply have nowhere else to go. Equally importantly, the unit works with tenants who receive benefits, finding them housing resources, ensuring money is actually paid and even advancing benefits to tenants if building owners don’t make timely payments.
Although the city attorney maintains strong partnerships with code enforcement personnel, they can only prosecute cases that are brought to them. I’m investigating that bottleneck now, trying to pinpoint where our cases get lost along the way.
It could be the lack of inspectors in the code compliance division, or a lack of training on how to identify and resolve substandard housing cases. It could be that cases that should go to the Code Enforcement Unit aren’t recognized as such. It might be necessary to move some inspectors into that unit to provide additional accountability and oversight.
The code compliance division and enforcement unit have had some incredible successes in resolving truly horrific housing issues. But that’s little comfort to those still living in such situations.
David Alvarez is City Council member representing District 8. Alvarez’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.