Little or no recourse for Sonoma County renters living in squalor (Part 3)

The government framework set up to protect Sonoma County renters from unsafe and unhealthy living conditions has developed such extensive cracks that it has left many tenants without public recourse save for the court system, where help often comes too late to make fixes or fight evictions ordered by landlords, a Press Democrat investigation has found.

The county and nine city departments charged with enforcing state health and safety laws on housing are understaffed, according to current and former employees, and most cannot keep up with their active caseloads, which are growing in both sheer volume and in the severity of alleged violations, according to records examined over the past six months by the newspaper.

In some cases, building officials or enforcement officers who investigate complaints of code violations are allowed to cherry-pick which cases they pursue, while others can be shelved and forgotten about without regular prodding by tenants or their advocates, according to current and former inspectors from code enforcement departments throughout the county.

“Sometimes we have politicians telling us, ‘We want you to look at this one,’” said Mark Setterland, Santa Rosa’s chief building official who was in charge of the city’s code enforcement division until November. “Sometimes we have people who are the squeaky wheels — complainers who constantly call. It’s easier to deal with that person now rather than a City Council member or the city manager a month from now.”

The result is that landlords found to be in violation of state health and safety codes can delay housing fixes for years. Sometimes they do nothing, current and former code enforcement officials said.

“We have this attitude that as long as they’re making progress and moving forward, we’re going to try to be flexible with them,” Setterland said. “There are some who can’t afford to fix everything at once, so they sit and wait until we come around again. But with a caseload as high as we have, when something comes off the radar, it stays off the radar for a while. … It can be years.”

Departments only track investigations once complaints are verified by inspectors in site visits. Lining up a site visit can take months, and the follow-up inspection to ensure property owners have fixed all violations sometimes comes years later, code enforcement records show.

“This is a public safety issue — it’s as important as police and fire, and unfortunately tenants are forced to live in these conditions because they don’t have any money or political power, so often they’re at the mercy of the landlord,” said Sam Lynch, a former Santa Rosa code enforcement officer who retired last year after 16 years in the division. “I’ve seen it all over. … People get sick, and they really could get hurt.”

In August and October last year, The Press Democrat requested code enforcement records on substandard housing cases and complaints in the county and its nine cities. Over the ensuing six months, the newspaper examined thousands of pages of notes and records from code enforcement officers, including mold surveys and photographs documenting problems such as leaky roofs, broken heating and rodent infestations. As well, the newspaper tracked cases where complaints had been verified by inspectors and fixes had been ordered.

Santa Rosa, which has the largest number of housing units in the county and is home to more than a third of its population, accounts for two-thirds of the 253 unresolved substandard housing cases verified between August and December. Most of the open cases had numerous violations at each residence.

In the county’s jurisdiction, more than 63 unresolved cases — the second highest number — detailed a litany of substandard housing problems.

In cities other than Santa Rosa, violations can be hard to account for. In some areas, code enforcement departments do not keep track of substandard housing complaints, and often, government officials charged with enforcing state health and safety laws shift their responsibility to nonprofit organizations that serve as another safety net for tenants who complain.

Two of those groups, Petaluma People Services, which runs the Fair Housing Sonoma County program, and Legal Aid of Sonoma County, based in Santa Rosa, offer free advice and landlord-tenant mediation to resolve substandard housing disputes. In rare cases, an attorney will represent tenants in court during eviction proceedings.

But those services do not help tenants who are repeatedly ignored or evicted after complaining about substandard housing conditions, tenants’ rights attorneys said.

“There are laws to protect people from being retaliated against for complaining, but unfortunately it’s going to be really difficult if they don’t have a lawyer,” said Edie Sussman, a Santa Rosa attorney who specializes in substandard housing. “The nonprofits don’t have the resources to take cases to court.”

Code enforcement officers sometimes direct tenants to the nonprofits because some disputes can be handled before escalating to an official investigation, officials said. “This can turn really ugly, so the first thing we’ll say is ‘Can’t you resolve this with your landlord?’” said Glenn Schainblatt, the building official for Sebastopol who also handles code enforcement. “We haven’t had any complaints this year. … That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, but we just don’t go looking for them. We wouldn’t know where to start.”

Mike Miller, Healdsburg’s part-time code enforcement officer who works under the police department, said the city requires most substandard housing disputes to be hashed out by landlords and tenants.

“When somebody calls and says, ‘Hey I have a problem and my landlord won’t take care of it,’ my first response is, ‘Put it in writing and give it to your landlord’ — it’s a civil matter between the landlord and the tenant,” Miller said. “Then, unless it’s an immediate life-safety issue, we send them to Petaluma People Services.”

If the problem is still unresolved, Miller said he’ll order an inspection of the unit.

Petaluma’s sole code enforcement officer said when he receives a complaint, he also refers tenants to Fair Housing Sonoma County.

“We get so many calls, it’s hard to keep up,” said Joe Garcia, the code enforcement officer. “So when someone calls and says they have a leaky roof or issues in their house and their landlord won’t take care of it, my first response is to tell them to write a letter and give it to the landlord. Then I send them to Petaluma People Services to handle the dispute.”

When it may not be immediately clear that problems with mold, cockroaches or faulty plumbing present a safety or health hazard, most local agencies can prioritize other nuisances, such as hoarding and illegal marijuana growing. Even when complaints are verified, some property owners get away with ignoring problems in their rental unit and evict people who press for repairs, according to county and city officials, as well as attorneys who represent landlords and tenants in civil proceedings.

“Some will do whatever they need to do to keep us from going to the next level, like pulling a permit, but then not making any repairs,” Setterland said. “They’ll do the minimum amount they need to do to get us off their backs.”

Code enforcement records on open cases provide a snapshot of the substandard housing conditions some tenants are enduring:

A four-unit apartment complex at 1075 Delport Ave. was found by Santa Rosa inspectors to have faulty wiring in the kitchen and a major cockroach problem. The property’s owner, Alice Kibwaa, has been associated with at least one other property with a substandard housing investigation in Santa Rosa, records show.

Another four-unit complex at 2848 Apple Valley Lane in Santa Rosa was found to have water leaks in the structure, causing extensive mold growth inside. Cockroaches and a broken heater were other problems.

A three-unit apartment property at 1762 Stony Point Road in Santa Rosa had a cockroach infestation, hazardous plumbing problems in the bathroom and rats in December. The property has a history of substandard housing violations, records show.

Owners for the apartments on Delport Avenue and Apple Valley Lane said they only learned about tenant complaints at their units when told about them in a call from a Press Democrat reporter. Both said they had not seen the city’s violation notices when they were issued in March and April, respectively.

“I’m not aware of this,” said Kibwaa, who declined to discuss the matter further. She did not return follow-up phone calls.

“This is new information to me,” said Kifle Haile, one of two property owners for the apartment property on Apple Valley Lane, according to records.

Olga Sterba, who owns the apartments on Stony Point Road, said she was aware of the problems but said the tenant had prevented her from fixing the plumbing and other issues. One of the tenants, Mavis Lyster, disputes those claims and said her repeated complaints have gone unaddressed.

Sterba also said she does not have regular access to the property to oversee repairs because she does not have transportation. She lives about 6 miles away in northeast Santa Rosa, according to voter registration records.

Neither Sonoma County nor its nine cities, whose practices were examined for this report, proactively inspect existing rental housing without first hearing from tenants who have lodged complaints about living conditions. That arrangement is standard among local governments across the state, The Press Democrat found.

Some California cities and counties have enacted proactive rental inspection policies to deter landlords from letting their properties fall into disrepair. State and national health and housing experts say that is a better way to assure a sound housing supply.

“A more proactive approach — like how restaurant inspections work — can catch problems before they get really serious, and if landlords know their buildings are going to be routinely inspected, there’s a built-in incentive to make sure they’re on top of repairs,” said Brandon Kitagawa, co-chair of a group that studies the matter for the California Healthy Housing Coalition, an advocacy organization.

“We recognize that it may cost cities and counties to do proactive inspections, and property owners are not always supportive, so that can lead to push-back politically,” said Jonathan Wilson, director of research for the National Center for Healthy Housing. “But substandard housing costs society — there are lost work days, lost school days and high health care costs.”

Locally, the rising level of complaints and active violations are fueling calls for a stronger approach to housing inspection and a new layer of legal protection for tenants — including rent control and just-cause eviction policies — which can safeguard renters who confront their landlords over living conditions.

No jurisdiction in Sonoma County has such provisions, but Santa Rosa elected officials are set to consider enacting rent control provisions and just cause eviction policies. The City Council plans to discuss the matter today. The City Council is also poised to address code enforcement shortfalls in April. One idea includes imposing mandatory government inspections for the city’s rental stock.

“If you’re running a restaurant and you make people sick, we’re going to shut you down, so why not do the same for landlords?” said Santa Rosa Mayor John Sawyer, who himself is a landlord. “Landlords are business owners, and they have a responsibility to their customers — tenants. We could say to landlords, ‘If you’re running a home and it’s not safe, you’ve got a problem and we’re going to close you down.’”

Sawyer said he and his husband own a rental property in east Santa Rosa.

The more diffuse solution to the problem could rest with boosting the comparatively meager budgets of code enforcement divisions, authorities in the field said.

“Code enforcement is not generally paid attention to, and being understaffed and mismanaged is kind of a classic code enforcement problem throughout California,” said Andy Wingert, the code enforcement chief for San Bernardino County. “It’s not easy, but some places are being more proactive, and we’re starting to see more and more systematic rental inspections. … What that really requires is support from elected officials and people like city managers.”

Tenants’ rights attorneys and some code enforcement officials said squalid housing cases have ballooned partly because the Board of Supervisors and city councils have not prioritized code enforcement within local government. Departments are expected to enforce state housing laws with bare-bones staffing, critics said.

“The individual code enforcement officers need to be supported from higher-ups with resources, and they need to be told it’s OK to do their jobs,” said Sussman, the Santa Rosa tenants’ rights attorney. “Blaming the worker is not fair or appropriate. What Sonoma County needs is the political will to assign resources to these departments so people can be held accountable for violating the law.”

The staffing problem is not new.

A 2004 report by the Sonoma County Grand Jury criticized the county for inadequate staffing and a lax approach to code enforcement. At the time, the independent panel recommended the Permit and Resource Management Department add manpower and increase fines to give property owners more incentive to follow the law, while generating more revenue for code enforcement. It also suggested that adding staff would allow the county to crack down on repeat violators and enable people who were afraid to complain to come forward. “Unless those steps are taken, these types of problems will continue,” Jim Simpson, the grand jury foreman at the time, was quoted as saying in a Press Democrat article.

Another county Grand Jury report issued last year criticizes the county’s complaint-driven approach to rental housing inspections and for not adequately providing materials in Spanish.

“People file a complaint, people say they don’t know what happened to it, or what PRMD is doing about it,” said Charlotte Addington, the current grand jury forewoman. “We believe that should be a service the department should be providing.”

Tennis Wick, the department’s director, said county code enforcement officers are overwhelmed, but the county is exploring ways to reduce caseloads.

“Each code enforcement officer is handling substantial caseloads. Between them, it’s regularly at about 4,000,” Wick said referring to the total number across the department, including housing and other code enforcement matters. “We prioritize life safety issues … but we are also changing our approach for all of our cases and taking a more aggressive stance.”

Wick and other county officials said they have taken additional steps to convince landlords to repair violations quickly. Fines for outstanding violations in the county’s jurisdiction can amount to $500 a day, up from $25 a decade ago.

County and city officials have also sought to address the issue by dedicating discretionary money to nonprofit legal services, including Petaluma People Services and Legal Aid of Sonoma County.

Representatives from those organizations acknowledge they do not have adequate resources to represent tenants in court. In most cases, they merely offer advice.

“Lots of times, what we do is bring the landlord and the tenant together to try and resolve the problem,” said Elece Hempel, executive director of Petaluma People Services, which runs Fair Housing. “We get 1,500 calls with complaints each year — it’s a lot of work, so we usually believe there has been some resolution or the tenant has gotten those repairs made.”

“We don’t really get into habitability,” said Brook Clyde, a volunteer attorney for Legal Aid. “Most of the eviction cases we deal with are for nonpayment of rent. … Substandard housing complaints are more of a knee-jerk reaction to the eviction.”

Critics — and tenants who have called Fair Housing — say requests for help with substandard housing complaints are not being handled seriously.

“I called and called, and no one is coming out. No one is helping me,” said Mary Sweeney, who has lived in the Vintage Chateau Senior Apartments on North McDowell Boulevard in Petaluma since 2011.

Sweeney said there are holes underneath her kitchen sink and in the walls to her apartment that are letting rodents in. She said she’s filled them, but at one point this past summer she couldn’t bear it anymore. She left her home that night and checked into a hotel.

“They run 500 miles an hour up and down my hallway, in front of my TV, and into my bedroom at night,” Sweeney said. “I’ve called Fair Housing and I’ve called code enforcement, and they tell me it’s a landlord-tenant issue, but I just keep getting blamed and I don’t know what to do.”

Countywide, code enforcement staffing has declined in some areas and remained flat in others. In 2004, the county had 10 staff members in its code enforcement division. Today there are eight inspectors. Santa Rosa cut inspectors during the recession, but the department is back at its regular staffing level, with five inspectors.

Some members of the Board of Supervisors and the Santa Rosa City Council say more can be done to enforce health and safety codes.

“We need to come down hard on landlords,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane. “Too many get away with this stuff for years and years, and human beings are being exploited. Not all landlords are bad, but the ones who are — we should be stepping up code enforcement and going after them more aggressively.”

Other supervisors said that people who violate state housing laws should be held accountable, but that code enforcement staffing is not the problem.

“That’s why we have Fair Housing and Legal Aid. … What we need is more housing units,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt. “If Tennis Wick tells me that he needs more people, we’ll look at that.”

Supervisors Efren Carrillo and Zane, who represent districts with the highest number of open substandard housing cases, said the county must invest more resources in code enforcement.

“We have to make safety a higher priority,” said Carrillo, the board chairman. “And if people are fearful of retaliation, we need to look at problems in our code enforcement process so we can investigate.”

Supervisor Susan Gorin said the county should be stepping up its response to slum housing by going after problem landlords and doing a better job of enforcing current laws.

“A lot of folks are living in substandard housing, and many have been paying rent and complaining for a long time,” Gorin said. “Many people feel that nothing is being done, and they are afraid to complain because they’d have nowhere else to live, so they’re held captive in dangerous living situations. We need to empower tenants and let them know their rights, and come up with a systematic approach through code enforcement to hold landlords accountable.”

Several Santa Rosa City Council members said that the scope of the problem hasn’t been clear to them. Some said they are not yet convinced that code enforcement needs more staffing, while others said the city is eyeing a proactive approach that could include mandatory, regular inspections of rental housing.

“I genuinely had no idea that we had cases that were as long outstanding as they are, and I had no idea we were as underfunded as we are,” said Councilwoman Julie Combs, when she learned about Santa Rosa’s open housing violations.

Sawyer said he is aware that substandard housing is a problem in the city, but also said he is concerned about putting people out on the streets if a property’s repairs require it to be vacated.

“We want to catch these things before they end up like the Hoen Avenue problem, but what if you find a real bad situation and we have to red-tag a house,” Sawyer said, referring to the forced removal last year of nine families from unsafe living conditions at their apartment building on Hoen Avenue in Santa Rosa. “People don’t have anywhere to go, so we’ve taken one problem and created another one.”

In jurisdictions where code enforcement divisions are well-staffed and take an aggressive approach with housing inspections, the stock of rental units is better preserved, boosting property values, said Wingert, the San Bernardino County official and other health and housing experts.

Tenants tend to be healthier as well, experts said.

Some city and county agencies in California regularly step in and begin imposing harsh penalties to ensure compliance in cases where ordered repairs are not made. In extreme cases, those governments will actually seize the property.

Wingert cited the code enforcement division in the city of Ontario, his former employer, as an example of a strong, well-supported agency.

The Southern California city — roughly the same in size and population as Santa Rosa — has 14 code enforcement officers, three times as many as Santa Rosa, as well as a code enforcement director and prosecutor for egregious cases. It also requires property owners to consent to regular rental inspections. According to state code enforcement experts, the city of Sacramento is also considered ahead of the curve because it funds a program under which city staff regularly inspect rental properties. The goal is to “promote greater compliance with health and safety codes, and preserve the quality of Sacramento’s neighborhoods and available housing,” according to the city website. “Code violations … are a threat to the occupant’s safety, (the) structural integrity of the building and (have) a negative impact on the surrounding neighborhoods.”

Some major metropolitan areas, including San Francisco and Los Angeles, are considered models because they measure the health and safety of their housing stock as a component of the overall health of a community. Both cities conduct routine housing inspections.

In Sonoma County, local agencies have authority to assess fines and penalties. With authorization from the Board of Supervisors or city councils, officials can also pursue civil and criminal cases when property owners don’t comply with state and local rules. Those instances, however, are rare.

Last year, the county had 10 open cases in civil litigation detailing some type of substandard housing issue, according to Deputy County Counsel Debbie Latham.

“Mostly what we deal with is building code or zoning code issues,” Latham said. “It doesn’t mean we aren’t concerned about tenant issues, we just don’t always know about violations. We need to be more aggressive, but if people are in a bad situation, they also need to come forward and bring issues to the county’s attention.”

Former Santa Rosa Assistant City Attorney Michael Casey said at one point the city went after slumlords.

One such case involved a former Santa Rosa businessman named Sherman Campbell, singled out by the city for 24 rental units he owned and managed in the Apple Valley neighborhood.

The city sued Campbell in 2001 for renting out moldy apartments with broken windows, rotted siding and infested with mice and cockroaches. As part of a settlement the following year, Campbell agreed to pay $200,000 in penalties and other costs and to get out of the residential rental business in Santa Rosa for five years.

“I loved working that case,” Casey said. “Back then, word had gotten out around town to landlords that we were going to show up, and we were going to require compliance. … They knew there was a consequence, so things got better.”

But the city no longer has the resources to pursue such cases, Casey said before he retired last year. Santa Rosa last fall had two open cases in civil litigation, both involving abandoned, unoccupied homes.

“We have discretion to prosecute violations of our code, but it’s rare,” Casey said at the time. “We used to take people to court more often, and they’d freak out, and things would get fixed. We don’t have the resources for that anymore.”

[This story was originally published by The Press Democrat.]

Photo by Kent Porter/The Press Democrat.