A City Council committee voted Wednesday to establish routine inspection of apartments in Los Angeles as the centerpiece of what could amount to a wholesale assault on slum housing conditions.
The Ad Hoc Committee on Substandard Housing, composed of seven council members and Mayor Richard Riordan, also voted unanimously to create a city unit dedicated exclusively to housing inspections--a responsibility that currently falls to the understaffed Department of Building and Safety.
Currently, Building and Safety conducts apartment inspections only when tenants or others file complaints. And the department's inspectors often fail to coordinate their efforts with other those of government agencies, including the county Department of Health Services.
"We're moving down the path of real, fundamental reform on a scale that hasn't happened in a major American city in a decade," said Gary Blasi, a UCLA law professor and member of the Blue Ribbon Citizen's Committee on Slum Housing. However, he and other advocates cautioned that the plan is doomed without a long-term guarantee of city funding.
The action must still must be approved by the full council. Although many doubts remain about how the program will be funded and implemented, Wednesday's vote signaled an important shift in attitudes on the council. Several proposals had been rejected before, and Riordan had made budget cuts in the Housing Department.
"The resolve of the council and the mayor's office is there," said Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg.
The vote came in response to recommendations by the citizens task force, a group of 23 business and community leaders. In July, the task force issued a report sharply critical of the Department of Building and Safety.
The citizen group called for an end to the current housing inspection system, echoing a report in The Times that found serious deficiencies in inspection procedures.
At the heart of the problem was the failure of any single entity to take responsibility for housing conditions, The Times said.
In a report to the council Wednesday, the citizens task force estimated that an annual inspection of each multifamily building in Los Angeles would require 83 additional inspectors at a cost of $6 million.
The task force recommended paying for the inspections by charging tenants a $1 monthly fee. But some members of the ad hoc committee said they were not sure that is the best way to fund the program.
Councilman Richard Alarcon said charging tenants an inspection fee--however small--would amount to a "regressive tax." And Deputy Mayor Kelly Martin said Riordan did not understand why inspections could not be covered by the Department of Building and Safety's existing budget.
Still, Alarcon and Martin voted to support the plan in principle, including a provision to establish a "single-purpose housing code enforcement agency" that would incorporate duties currently performed by the city attorney's office, the Department of Building and Safety and the Fire Department.
The only voice of dissent at Wednesday's hearing came from representatives of the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles, who called the proposed reforms bureaucratic overkill.
Trevor Grimm, the association's general counsel, said the proposed inspection program would unfairly target the 97% of landlords who keep their buildings clean and safe.
The association's stance drew a quick riposte from the head of the panel, the Rev. Donald Merrifield, Chancellor of Loyola Marymount University.
"I am surprised at the large number of respectable landlords who are defending the scoundrels," Merrifield said. "We do not think our recommendations are outrageous."