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Commentary | PERSPECTIVE ON HOUSING

Slum Conditions Affect All of Us

Los Angeles has dropped the ball, as official inattention and infighting leads to increased code violations.

February 10, 1999|DONALD P. MERRIFIELD and GARY L. BLASI | The Rev. Donald P. Merrifield S.J., chancellor of Loyola Marymount University, co-chairs the Blue Ribbon Citizens' Committee on Slum Housing. Gary L. Blasi, a professor of law at UCLA Law School, is a member of the committee

Eighteen months ago, a Times article exposed the city of Los Angeles' scandalously ineffective and wasteful system for preventing and responding to slum housing conditions. A week later, a group of volunteers from the banking, labor, real estate, academic and legal communities--the Blue Ribbon Citizens' Committee on Slum Housing--delivered its own report on the city's Department of Building and Safety. The city then took major steps toward designing a housing code enforcement system that would be among the best in the country.

But now, through official inattention and bureaucratic infighting, all that has been gained is at risk. The promises made to the public are being broken in back-room bureaucratic deals. Real progress has been made in many areas, but in some respects, the situation is now worse than before. Before the scandal broke, the city had as many as 73 inspectors assigned to investigate complaints of housing code violations in apartments. Now it has none--zero--and is responding with inadequate temporary arrangements.

The blue ribbon committee had two central recommendations: Establish a proactive inspection system that would identify declining properties before they became slums or abandoned shells, and makes it easier and more effective for citizens to file complaints.

Representatives of landlords, tenants, local officials and citizen volunteers worked for months to respond to the first recommendation. A unanimous City Council and the mayor approved a periodic inspection system, paid for entirely by a $1 monthly fee paid by landlords but passed on to their tenants. The Housing Department is in the early stages of making this new code enforcement program a model for the rest of the country. The Housing Department was not, however, allocated any personnel or budget to deal with complaints.

In the meantime, the city's Department of Building and Safety has quietly sabotaged the entire reform effort. The department dumped 6,000 old complaint files--evidence of its past poor performance--on the new program. The department also was allowed to stop enforcing the laws assigned to it. All complaints about apartment buildings were shunted off to the Housing Department. The Building and Safety Department stopped inspecting condos, hotels and motels. In other words, the Building Department unloaded all of the responsibility but none of its money.

Meanwhile, the mayor did not follow through with any budget allocation for the Housing Department to respond to complaints in the current fiscal year. And for next year, under pressure by the mayor to trim the budget, the department asked for less than half of what it would take to do the job: 19 inspectors to do work once assigned to more than 70. Put simply, the system is being designed to fail.

Often, such bureaucratic failures are of interest only to the participants. But here, the result has been a near disaster for tenants, and the beginnings of a disaster for the entire community. With no funding to respond to tenant complaints, the Housing Department has moved buildings generating complaints to the top of the list for routine inspection. But up to 80 complaints come into the Housing Department daily. And under an agreement reached with landlord representatives, the Housing Department gives at least 30 days notice prior to inspections in about 95% of complaints. Not even the outrageously inefficient Building and Safety Department made tenants wait a month before sending an inspector. This arrangement is simply unacceptable.

The Building Department must either resume enforcing the law, or funds and direction must be provided to the Housing Department to do the job.

The city is required by state law to enforce the housing codes or risk having that job taken over by the state. And while tenants and landlords are paying the entire cost of the inspection system, the cost of responding to complaints--like other law enforcement--must be shared by all. The consequences of slum housing extend far beyond rat-infested buildings. Diseases born there spread to schools and restaurants. Property values and businesses in the community decline. Social disorder and hopelessness spread.

The mayor must take charge to put an end to bureaucratic sabotage and to make good on policy promises with a sound budgetary proposal. The amount at issue--about $2 million--pales in comparison to amounts spent on other kinds of law enforcement. But perhaps even more than money, the mayor and City Council must also reassert the will and vision they displayed in ordering the most far-reaching reforms in city housing policy in decades, and see that such a vision is actually carried out.

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