|Richmond Ignores its Rental
Unit Inspection Ordinance
May 4, 2005
On May 3, 2005, the West County Times ran an extensive story (following this email) on Richmond’s failure to implement a rental inspection ordinance. The fact is that Richmond has a rental inspection ordinance, RMC 6.40 (http://bpc.iserver.net/codes/richmond/index.htm) that has been on the books for over ten years. The problem is that there has been an administrative decision not to enforce or implement it.
Lack of funding has been cited as one reason for this inaction, but that is a red herring. RMC 6.40.170(4)(b) states: “Review of and any increase or decrease in these fees shall be governed by the provisions of Chapter 2.34 of this Code.” RMC 2.34.020, Delegation of authority and direction to City Manager, states “The City Manager is hereby delegated the authority and directed to adopt and adjust fees and charges to recover the percentage of costs reasonably borne in providing the regulation, products or services enumerated in this chapter. In adopting and adjusting fees and charges, the City Manager shall act in an administrative and ministerial capacity and shall consider only the standards and criteria established by this chapter.”
Richmond’s decision to simply ignore its own ordinance, like many other things in this City, is totally unexplainable. The way city government is supposed to work is that the legislative body (the City Council in Richmond’s case) is supposed to make policy decisions that are recorded in ordinances, resolutions and other documents. Then the staff is supposed to implement them. Not in Richmond. It really doesn’t make any difference what the City Council does, the staff has its own agenda and decides what it will and will not do. That remains one of the reasons that this City is so incapable of doing the things and providing the services that are routine in so many other cities. We have a unique government culture in this city that is close to anarchy.
Often lack of funding is cited as the reason for staff failure to implement policy, and sometimes this is a legitimate concern. In the case of RMC 6.40, however, there is a built in mechanism for adjusting fees to fit the program.
By the way, this is not about rent control or eviction “just cause,” which remain controversial and hot button issues. This is simply about ensuring that Richmond’s renters are ensured a place to live that is clean, safe and code-conforming.
Look to the usual suspects, powerful apartment owners and industry lobbyists, who have intimidated both staff and some City Council members, as the real reason Richmond has ignored its own ordinance. Follow the money.
Richmond rental rules lag locally
Vallejo code enforcement manager Nimat Grantham has seen it all: Strips of blackened mold hanging from ceilings like stalactites, water jetting from tub faucets, the subfloors and joists so weakened by dry rot that the tubs have begun to sink through the floors.
"The worst I've seen? Lord have mercy," she said. "I've seen where the toilets were so backed up you'd be sloshing through sewage in the basement."
Vallejo is set to follow the lead set by Berkeley, Concord, Oakland and San Francisco, cities that have a regular rental inspection program in place, along with a menu of other renter protections.
Rental properties with all the flaws Grantham ticked off abound in Richmond. But Richmond provides no protections for its renters.
Landlords who let their properties fall into disrepair face no sanctions. Tenants can be evicted at any time, and for no particular reason.
The Times last year discovered tenants paying up to $700 a room to stay in a residential hotel that offered no heat, no fire safeguards, and rampant rodent infestations.
The Richmond City Council is considering two ordinances that would change the way landlords do business. One is a just-cause eviction ordinance, the other is a rental inspection program that would charge landlords enough to fund four full-time investigators.
If the county's second-largest city passes its draft rental inspection program, it will be one of the last big cities in the Bay Area to do so. Berkeley, Concord, Oakland, San Francisco and San Rafael have been conducting routine inspections for years.
But many cities go much further.
Matt Brown, staff attorney with the Berkeley Rental Housing Safety Program, said for any renter protection to work, a city must adopt a full package of protections that includes rent control and a just-cause eviction ordinance. In Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco, those provisions give the inspection program teeth.
"(Rental inspection) has a better chance of surviving," Brown said. "It's much weaker without a good-cause eviction ordinance. If you don't have one, you can get around the other."
For instance, with just-cause eviction laws in place, a tenant can report unlivable conditions -- presumably, without fear of eviction.
Yet the landlord could punish the tenant by doubling the rent -- in effect, an eviction for those who can't afford it, Brown said.
Richmond has yet to be convinced of that retaliatory relationship. Jorge Aguilar, law clerk for Eviction Defense, says the Oakland-based clinic gets most of its retaliatory eviction cases from Richmond.
This city has some of the oldest housing stock in the Bay Area. Many tenants say they complain to landlords about conditions, but nothing ever happens.
A few miles south in Berkeley, a girdle of guarantees supports tenants whose roofs spring leaks, heaters conk out, or floorboards sag.
"Most tenants are aware they're protected if they make a complaint," said Steve Barton, director of Berkeley's housing services.
Landlords needn't fear, he said. Berkeley's "good-cause eviction" law allows them plenty of latitude in evicting tenants.
Allowable causes include illegal activity, nonpayment of rent, damaging the property, disturbing the peace, refusing to sign a lease identical to an expired lease, refusing to allow the landlord to make repairs and more. The owner may also evict a tenant to move into the unit, or allow a family member to move into the unit.
Landlords say most maintain properties with professionalism and treat tenants with respect.
"I'm pretty sure there are only a few people" who fail to maintain their rentals, said Carol Walker of Richmond, a longtime rental property owner. "It's not good business not to take care of your property."
It is specifically for those few abusers that the laws exist, Aguilar said.
"Generally, the worst times are Christmas and Thanksgiving, because tenants, who have five weekdays to respond to an unlawful detainer, really end up with only three days -- less time to find an attorney or file papers," Aguilar said. "Most landlords would never do that, but when the situation is bad, it's horrible."
Just-cause ordinances have been shown to work. The dot-com boom spurred a blizzard of evictions in Oakland -- driving many renters to Richmond. The number of evictions tripled between 1998 and 2002, with rental prices leaping by nearly 100 percent, according to a report by the Oakland Data Center.
But in 2002, when Oakland voters passed the just-cause ordinance, the number of retaliatory evictions plummeted, Aguilar said.
A Concord manager said fear of retaliatory evictions has not been a problem even though that city has no just-cause ordinance. Routine inspections began in 2001.
"We do have a statement in the (inspection) ordinance that such evictions are illegal," said Ken Nichols, neighborhood preservation supervisor in Concord.
State law does prohibit retaliatory evictions, but cases must be heard by the state Supreme Court, and most are turned away, Aguilar said.
Concord uses the nonprofit organization Housing Rights, Inc. to mediate when allegations of retaliatory eviction arise.
Code enforcement manager Grantham's professional experiences in San Rafael, which inspects rentals, lead her to believe that when Vallejo approves a rental inspection ordinance it must include a provision that tenants cannot be evicted for reporting unlivable conditions.
But in Richmond, Walker, the rental owner, said neither a just-cause eviction nor a regular inspection schedule is needed. Rather, the city needs to enforce the complaint-driven program it has.
"I was reading in the paper about a landlord who threw a man's belongings out in the street after he complained," she said.
"It's very illegal for a landlord to do that. The man could have sued him. Judges lean over backwards to be fair to tenants. If there's a hint of retaliation, you won't prevail."
Walker, who says she is "an exemplary landlord -- I don't jack up the rents, I make repairs as soon as my tenants call me" -- said the city has failed to follow through with reluctant landlords when code violations come to light.
Richmond's chief building officer Fred Clement agrees that the city's program has not functioned as well as it could, but says below-average inspection fees charged to landlords are largely to blame. Bay Area cities charge from $33 to $100 per inspection; Richmond charges $10.
Some of the fears voiced by Richmond landlords about the proposed changes are unfounded, said Berkeley Housing chief Steve Barton.
Although the term "rent control" rattles landlords, he said rents are actually the highest in Berkeley and San Francisco -- cities with rent control.
The state Costa-Hawkins Act of 1999 allows property owners in rent-control cities to reset rents at a market rate when tenants move out.
In Vallejo, an owner-tenant committee has fashioned a three-pronged approach, which, along with rental inspections and incentives for property management companies, includes voluntary training for rental owners on how to upgrade and maintain their properties. The city modeled its draft inspection ordinance on the federal Section 8 program, which gives points for maintenance.
For their part, landlords and inspectors say tenants need education too.
Grantham described some heart-stopping moments while checking rentals in San Rafael: Tenants rolling barbecue grills indoors as a cheap source of heat, or blowing out pilot lights to reduce utility bills.
"People need to be educated," she said. "If you flick the light switch and sparks come out, that's a problem."