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Mandatory inspection of rentals?

Manteca may toughen code enforcement in blight fight

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Mandatory inspection of rentals?

Code enforcement officer Greg Baird inspects a back yard in the St. Francis neighborhood a few years back that had numerous property code violations.

Bulletin file photo/

POSTED January 29, 2010 2:46 a.m.
Trash and junk was stacked as high as the 6-foot fence and covered almost the entire back and side yards.
The inside of the rental home in the neighborhood between St. Anthony’s Catholic Church and Alameda Street wasn’t much better.

Neighbors were getting so frustrated they were talking about trying to buy the home, clear out the junk and then renting it themsleves or selling it. Code enforcement efforts proved futile due to the long laborious process through the courts when citations and warnings don’t work.

After years of frustration, the home finally sold. It took numerous large trailer-sized containment bins to haul away the junk and trash.

 It was one of Manteca’s more notorious code enforcement cases in recent memory. It, however, wasn’t a rarity.

Police making an arrest a few years back in the St. Francis Park neighborhood were startled to discover a massive junk collection in the back yard of the home. There were illegal lean-to sheds, stacked tires, 50-gallon drums, cords strung from the house to the illegal outbuildings some six feet off the ground, as well as literally tons of other items that policy surmised may have been stolen.

The extent of the mess even caught neighbors by surprise.

Given the lingering impact of foreclosures on neighborhoods and the possibility absentee landlords will soon dominate even newer neighborhoods as many homes under stress and being bought by investors, the City of Manteca is preparing a two-pronged strategy to become aggressive against property code violations and those landlords who do not maintain their rental property.

City Manager Steve Pinkerton said staff is exploring the possibility of mandating inspection of residential rental property every three to four years. They also are looking into implementing administrative remedies for code enforcement similar to what is in place in San Diego in lieu of using the court system to streamline the process and speed up results.

The rental inspection is aimed at keeping blight in check.

City leaders are concerned that a growing number of homes that are being sold in Manteca at bargain basement prices thanks to the foreclose mess are going to investors with a small but growing number from out-of-the-area. Local real estate experts have noted the majority of the 1,211 existing homes that changed hands in Manteca during 2009 were bought by investors.

“It is easier to work with a multi-unit complex that has 50 units as there is one property manager to go to,” Pinkerton noted. “But with single family (rentals) you may have 50 that have 50 different owners.”

A number of studies have tied an increase in crime to property maintenance issues. Graffiti, for example, when allowed to take root historically has led to a deterioration of neighborhood as has failure to maintain yards and houses as well as using them as impromptu storage yards.

The inspections would center on compliance with the uniform building code and municipal property maintenance laws. Pinkerton said the city is reviewing policies in place with other cities that allow landlords to comply with the requirement if they make thorough self inspections and then file the completed reports with the city.

Pinkerton said a whole neighborhood can suffer when property maintenance isn’t adhered to by absentee landlords. He noted it is tough to reverse blight once it takes hold and requires expensive and time consuming intervention by authorities to try and clean it up.

”At the end of the day rental housing is a business to make money for the owners,” Pinkerton said in explaining why they would be regulated to a higher degree than an owner-occupied home.

A move to speed up abatement process
An administrative remedy for code enforcement violations would require establishment of an appeal process with neutral hearing officers.

The proposed process would give the property owner a set amount of days –  usually 10 – to comply once a code enforcement officer has brought a deficiency to their attention. If the property owner doesn’t abate the nuisance within a specific time frame, a hearing is scheduled. If the hearing officer confirms the violations a city crew may go in and abate the nuisance.

If a department director such as fire services or building services determines that conditions on a property constitute an imminent threat to public health and safety, they may order immediate abatement. In that case, city crews then take minimal steps to abate the threat without giving prior notice to the owner. No hearing is required.

Abatement orders speeds up the time it takes to correct problems, they can usually be accomplished with a single notice and hearing.

Court ordered abatements generally require much more time and paperwork.

The downside is the initial cost involved. San Diego discovered that in extreme cases the abatement can cost between $3,000 and $4,000. The city must pay this to the crew they hire to abate the property. A lien is then place against the property to recover costs.

San Diego has 100 such abatements a year split evenly between boarding and securing dangerous buildings to excessive storage on residential property.

The proposal also would put in place civil penalties for serious cases involving zoning or building code violations. In that case, hearing officers can slap daily fines up to $2,500 a day per violation not to exceed $100,000. It is the same law used to write the city’s tough ordinance on bank maintenance of foreclosed property.

A hearing is automatically scheduled if the party ordered to abate a problem fails to comply.

At the hearing, San Diego staff typically recommends a “carrot and stick” approach by requesting the hearing officer suspend a large portion of the fines if the responsible parties comply with the abatement ordered with a short time frame.

In the 35 civil penalties that San Diego pursues a year, they win almost all cases with penalty awards ranging from $2,000 to $35,000.

Manteca recently added a second code enforcement officer using redevelopment agency money.

The RDA was formed to fight blight.
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