In response to lack of housing code enforcement in apartments and low-income hotels the Code Enforcement Coalition (CEC) – has banded together in a campaign to oust the BBI’s Superintendent, Larry Litchfield, and reform the Bureau.
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INSPECTORS ADMIT SYSTEM HAS FAILED
City Cant Force Correction Of Life Threatening Building Hazards
by Joseph Entin
At midnight on February 17, 1993, the ceiling in Lilian Recinos’ bedroom finally collapsed, tumbling onto Recinos while she slept. The ceiling had been leaking since December and sagging under the weight of the recent heavy rains. Although the Bureau of Building Inspection (BBI) has cited the owner, George Poon, numerous times, and a senior housing inspector visited the apartment the day after the collapse, no repairs have been scheduled.
The disaster at Recinos’ apartment, located at 1286 South Van Ness, bears testimony to the impotence of the BBI in enforcing the housing code and the ensuing negligence of landlords who know the BBI’s enforcement procedures have no sting.
In response to the widespread lack of housing code enforcement in apartments and low-income hotels, an alliance of tenants’ rights, church, and housing groups – the Code Enforcement Coalition (CEC) – has banded together in a campaign to oust the BBI’s Superintendent, Larry Litchfield, and reform the Bureau.
In front of 150 tenants and housing advocates from around the city, the CEC presented a series of demands to Litchfield at a public meeting on February 9th at the Everett Middle School.
The meeting opened with testimony from renters describing numerous buildings with severe, unabated code violations including broken showers, lack of heat, and leaking ceilings. Many of the properties have been cited by BBI, but have not been repaired. “This Litchfield,” commented Maggie Olsen of the Tenants’ Union. Well- documented examples of BBI’s lack of code enforcement abound in the Mission, Tenderloin and South of Market such as the Dahlia, Chronicle and Thor Hotels and Lilian Recinos’ apartment on South Van Ness.
The CEC presented a number of demands to Litchfield and the BBI executive corps. Although Litchfield committed to many of the deferred, low-impact proposals such as implementing a public information campaign, legislation for a faster timeline for violations and a citizens’ commission, he waffled on the more direct, immediate-impact requests and evaded questions concerning BBI’s ineffectiveness. When asked why BBI doesn’t give inspection priority to previously cited buildings, Litchfield threw the blame on the existing housing code: “Due process in the code is very encumbering. The current provisions often don’t allow us to do our job.”
Litchfield’s attempt to pass the buck infuriated Randy Shaw, an attorney with the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. “There’s nothing in State law that restricts anything the BBI does,” Shaw said in an interview with the NEWS. “In San Francisco, landlords can be prosecuted, but they’re not even being cited. We’re talking about cases that never get to the City Attorney.”
The reason for BBI’s staggering ineptitude? Bureaucratic inertia instituted by Litchfield, according to the CEC. “Litchfield made a policy decision to take resources away from housing and code enforcement and move them towards upper level bureaucracy,” asserts Shaw.
The BBI is an administrative morass. Since assuming his $105,000-a-year post, Litchfield has sabotaged code enforcement, according to the CEC, by increasing the number of administrative stations a case must pass before being referred for prosecution. For example, Litchfield has divided the housing inspection office into two departments. When a complaint is filed, the Housing Inspection department sends one of 16 staff inspectors to the building. If the landlord is cited, and doesn’t repair the problem, an “administrative hearing” is held, after which the case can be referred to the Code Enforcement department, which is assigned only 4 inspectors. After inspection by the Code Enforcement officer, a “Director’s Hearing” is held at which time an “order of abatement” is issued. Only after the Director’s Hearing can BBI refer the case onto the City Attorney and lien the property. Since Litchfield took over BBI, it takes up to 3 months longer for cases to be scheduled for a Director Hearing, according to the CEC.
Under Litchfield’s system, the code enforcement division is grossly understaffed and overworked, according to Larry Kornfield, the division’s director: “We have the authority, but not the staff or the money to take further action against negligent landlords). And while we find that the City Attorney is diligent, it takes a long, long time to reach resolution.
The figures speak for themselves: with only 4 inspectors, the code enforcement division has over 2100 active cases which have passed Director’s Hearings. Last year, only 90 cases were settled by the City Attorney, and many of these cases, Kornfield admits, were not resolved to the BBI’s satisfaction: “We won some, we lost some, the statute had passed on others.”
Kornfield admits there is a financial disincentive to pursue housing code violations under the current Bureau procedures. Because the process is so time consuming, and involves so much administrative red tape, enforcement has become extremely expensive for the BBI. “Filing a lien is a drain on our funds — it’s very expensive. The City might recover its funds over five years through back taxes, but we don’t get the funds up front,” Kornfield notes.
Obviously frustrated with the lack of resources which Litchfield has allocated to his department, Kornfield spoke at the February 9th meeting in favor of a CEC proposal to mandate holding a Director’s Hearing within 30 days of a case being referred to the BBI. “I’m very happy to see attention being placed on code enforcement — it’s my job,” commented Kornfield. “The best solution is to solve the problem at the lowest possible level.”
Although Kornfield blames his department’s self-acknowledged ineffectiveness on a lack of inspectors and funding, the BBI as a whole is loaded with resources. It is Litchfield’s policies and budgetary decisions which have sapped the BBI’s code enforcement strength. On top of its $18,000,000 annual budget, the Department generates its own funds from building permits and fees milked from homeowners expanding or improving their properties. These funds are unrestricted, unmonitored and exempt from the City’s General Funds.
How does Litchfield spend these monies in the face of administrative back-log and escalating tenant complaints? Hire three $84,000-a-year deputies while the code enforcement division continues to chase 1200 cases with only four inspectors.
Members of the CEC are particularly outraged at the BBI’s inability (or unwillingness) to enforce San Francisco’s heat law-Section 707 and 707A of the city’s General Code, enacted in 1983 as “emergency” legislation to remedy what the bill describes as “the crucial lack of adequate beat or heating facilities or both in many apartments and hotels in the City and County of San Francisco.” The law gives inspectors the authority to arrest without a warrant any landlord not supplying adequate heat (70 degrees between 6 AM and 11 PM). If charged, a landlord can be fined between $100 and $1,000 per day until heat is supplied.
Despite such powerful ammunition, BBI refuses to level its guns on negligent landlords. In a phone conversation with the News, Peter Burns, chief of the housing inspection division, acknowledged that the BBI does not employ the full force of the law — landlords of buildings without heat are given a time frame for repairs rather than being fined or arrested in accordance with the code.
If noncompliance continues, Buras explained, the case would be discussed at a hearing and passed on through what he termed the department’s “mediation process”. Residents of the Chronicle Hotel, an SRO at 936 Mission, filed 100 complaints during January, according to Mike Shannon, who resides at the Chronicle. Despite the persistence, many of the rooms do not have heat and the landlords had not been fined at the time of the February 9th meeting.
Subsequent to the meeting, CEC members organized a noisy protest outside the BBI offices in Fox Plaza on February 25th. Learning that Litchfield was in the East Bay, they proceeded to Chief Administrative Officer Rudy Notbenberg, Litchfield’s superior, who barricaded himself in his office behind a wall of police, finally sending out an underling who agreed to accompany the CEC on a tour of some of the more depressing properties.
“The City is always citing landlords. That’s not the problem. Citations don’t mean anything. It’s the follow-up — there’s no penalty for not complying,” commends Tenderloin Housing Clinic director Shaw. “The system is designed to encourage landlords to comply voluntarily. There’s nothing wrong with that, except it doesn’t work.”
For the Mission, code enforcement is crucial to the neighborhood’s well being. “In terms of the Mission district, there’s an obvious link between lack of code enforcement and deterioration of the neighborhood,” according to Shaw. “If I were a good landlord in the Mission, I’d be as angry as the tenants.”