Oakland landlords may be forced to clean up their act

Dirty, disgusting and dangerous apartments and rental homes are everywhere in Oakland, but now the city may finally start a program to hold landlords accountable, with a goal to prevent tragedies like what happened at the Ghost Ship warehouse.

Many of the people living in deplorable conditions say they are afraid to complain to their landlords for fear they could end up homeless. Unlike many major California cities, Oakland has no current program to proactively inspect rental properties.

Conditions inside rental units, warehouses and other living spaces is widely unknown and code enforcement officers rely on a complaint-based system, reacting only when issues are reported to them. With the housing shortage, many of the fire hazards, substandard living conditions and code violations go unreported, according to Alameda Healthy Homes Director Larry Brooks.

“Right now, we’re paying the price for not looking into these types of units,” he said. “We need to identify the types of problems that are there and then come up with ways to correct them.”

Brooks leads the county department that focuses on eliminating lead paint from older homes to protect Alameda County children and families. He was part of a group that four years ago designed a pilot program for the city of Oakland, aimed at proactively inspecting rental properties. However, just as the project got off the ground in 2016, tragedy struck when 36 lives were taken by flames and smoke at the Ghost Ship warehouse.

“I was shocked in a way,” Brooks said. “I was somewhat embarrassed in a way.”

He explained a proactive inspection program plan would eventually lead to inspections of warehouse communities. Right now, many alternative living situations go relatively unchecked.

A 2017 study regarding inspection programs shows problematic property owners are able to slip through the cracks and profit at the expense of people’s health.

“There’s an affordable housing crisis here. People are afraid of retaliation from their landlords so they’re not going to complain,” Brooks said.

2 Investigates examined data and studies that detail other California cities and their programs. Records show San Jose checks inside rental buildings with three or more units every five years. Los Angeles does the same thing but every three years. Sacramento randomly audits and looks inside 10 percent of units in each building every year. On the other hand, San Francisco only looks at exteriors and common areas of rentals.

In 2015, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf announced a pilot program to proactively go after problem properties. She explained a year prior to Ghost Ship that it shouldn’t be any renter’s responsibility to report unsafe living conditions.

“People are subject to horrible living conditions,” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said in a 2015 press conference announcing the pilot program.

But after the pilot program, nothing was officially started beyond a few meetings, despite $600,000 being approved and set aside by city council for a proactive inspection program as late as last year.

“I think it’s difficult in a city of great need to often prioritize competing needs we have,” councilwoman Lynette Gibson-McElheney said. “This is one we need to get to the top of the list and off the back-burner so to speak.”

Gibson-McElheney said she’s always supported the added layer of enforcement but because of the homeless crisis and housing shortage, Oakland shelved the idea until now.

This July, under some community pressure, city council approved funding to hire a consultant for $100,000 to design the program, come up with an inspection checklist, a standard operating procedure and training. Then next budget cycle, $500,000 will be devoted to staff and the program itself.

“We really need the ability to help families keep themselves safe,” Gibson-McElheney said.

Supporters tell KTVU it will be more cost effective and expose so-called slumlords, fire hazards and substandard living conditions. Additionally, if conditions can’t be improved quickly, the program could potentially fund alternative housing for tenants and then liens could be put on a landlord’s property to recoup money for the program.

In the end, it is planned to be a joint effort between the Oakland Fire Department and the Department of Planning and Building with an focus on accountability and community improvement.

“The biggest frustration for me is we weren’t able to do this 10 years ago,” Brooks remarked.