The Los Angeles City Council, stirred by reports of slum conditions in the northeast San Fernando Valley, in September took the first step toward addressing the problem: It told the city Housing Department to come up with a plan to speed up apartment inspections. Call the department's response, presented to and approved by the Council last week, a promising second step.
General Manager Garry Pinney proposed streamlining the department's code enforcement programs into one division reporting to one director. Examples of such programs include one that arranges for residents to pay rent into an escrow account instead of to the landlord to fund overdue repairs. Another attempts to prevent the need for the first by providing training for apartment managers.
Reorganizing these programs into one division makes sense. But it is only a step, and both the Council and the Housing Department realize that. Streamlining the bureaucracy would undoubtedly speed inspections, but the department also needs more inspectors if it hopes to meet its goal of inspecting each of the 750,000 apartment units in Los Angeles once every three years.
The city set that laudable goal two years ago, but now says it will take six years to complete the first round of inspections. That is unacceptable.
Northeast Valley apartments have the highest rate of building and safety code violations in the city--when they're inspected, that is. We're not talking peeling paint and leaking roofs, although there's that too. Violations such as exposed wiring or immovable security bars on windows are matters of life and death. Some areas of the northeast Valley have more in common with a developing country than the richest country in the world, including an outbreak of shigella, an intestinal disease linked to poor sanitation and commonly seen only in the Third World.
Before the city started doing regular inspections, apartments were inspected on a piecemeal basis and only in response to complaints. That allowed small problems to go unnoticed until they exploded into big problems. It was akin to using an emergency room for medical care when a visit to a doctor's office might have kept the ailment in check. (Lack of medical services is another problem in the northeast Valley, but that's another story.)
The regular inspection program is the doctor's office of apartment maintenance. It is funded by a $1 per unit fee charged to apartment owners. Trouble is, some apartment owners don't want to pay.
A Van Nuys-based group of landlords sued to eliminate the fee, claiming it violates Proposition 218, approved by California voters in 1996. The measure requires that new tax levies be subject to a vote by those affected. The Los Angeles city attorney's office has argued that 218 allows the inspection charge.
We see it as a small cost of doing business and a way to inform responsible landlords of problems before they escalate into more costly emergencies. But the state Supreme Court will decide on the fee's legality and is scheduled to rule on the case by Jan. 11. The Council and the Housing Department are waiting to see whether they will be able to use the fees--or will have to repay them--before adding new inspectors.
But this much is not in question: Regardless of how the court rules, the city must have a systematic inspection program and it must be adequately staffed. Responding to complaints alone will not do. Low-income tenants, especially in today's tight rental market, are often afraid to complain. Some don't know they even have that option.
Landlords and tenants alike need assurances that the inspection program will be run in an efficient manner. But tenants, especially, need the city's commitment to hire enough inspectors to do the job. Their safety, their very lives, are at stake.