Conditions in apartments across the San Fernando Valley vary from posh to downright scary. Cleaning up the latter was the intent of an inspection fee imposed last year by the Los Angeles City Council. Owners of the 750,000 apartments citywide pay $1 per unit per month to fund inspections every three years. But last week, a Van Nuys-based group of landlords sued to eliminate the fee.
The lawsuit--financed by the Apartment Owners Assn.--claims the fee violates Proposition 218, the initiative approved by voters in 1996 that limits the ability of governments to charge for some services without voter approval. The Los Angeles City Attorney's office has argued that 218 allows the inspection charge. In fact, the fee is a small cost of doing business and regular inspections provide a safeguard against unscrupulous landlords.
That is, if they are conducted.
Of 17,500 inspections done between July 1 and Dec. 31 of last year, 13,000--or 74%--were performed in response to complaints. At that rate, it would take 21 years to inspect every unit. Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Feuer accurately described the situation as outrageous.
Under the city's old system, inspectors responded to complaints. That meant small problems often went undiscovered until they exploded as big problems--rotting roofs, broken pipes or dangerous wiring. The intent of the $1 fee was to make inspections more regular, to help inspectors work with landlords and tenants to address minor problems before they became a threat to health or safety.
Clearly, a good idea is suffering from poor execution. Whether the apartment association has a technical case is a point of law for a judge to decide. But responsible apartment owners should welcome the opportunity to systematically weed out competitors with less integrity. That can't happen without regular inspections. It's up to the city to make its $1 charge something more than just another municipal rip-off.