Aging suburban neighborhoods in unincorporated Sacramento County now have the biggest concentration of substandard rental apartments in the region – a reality reflected in a recent Bee series on Afghan refugees.
One area in particular, Arden Arcade, has become a problem. The Bee series, “No Safe Place,” documented how former interpreters and other Afghans who worked alongside U.S. forces in the war have been placed in run-down apartments infested by bedbugs and roaches. County documents show the problems go far beyond that. In recent months, inspectors have also found potentially life-threatening dry rot in three Arden Arcade apartment complexes that house many of the Afghan refugees.
“I have a lot of concerns about the quality of the housing in these apartments,” said Carl Dolk, president of Advocates for Arden Arcade, a neighborhood group that has complained about the county’s handling of development in the community. “I feel for the people who live there, especially the Afghans that don’t understand the government bureaucracy.”
More than 2,000 Afghans have moved to Sacramento County since October 2010 with Special Immigrant Visas granted for service in the war. To qualify for the visas, they have to show that they face the threat of death if they stay in the country, where the Taliban has targeted those who worked for the U.S.
Hundreds of these newcomers live in Arden Arcade, where apartment complexes were thrown up in the 1950s and 1960s to house workers at the former McClellan Air Force Base. Of the 180 rental buildings on the county’s problem property registry, 38 are located in Arden Arcade. The Arden Arcade complexes have more than 2,000 units, one-third of the county’s most troubled rental housing.
2,000 Arden Arcade apartment units in complexes labeled as problems by Sacramento County
Barry Chamberlain, the county’s code enforcement chief, said the problem is the result of Arden Arcade’s high concentration of older apartment complexes. The troubled housing registry has grown since the county started its formal rental housing inspection program in 2010, with properties rarely coming off the list because they cannot pass two consecutive inspections, he said.
“The county has a lot of old apartment complexes,” Chamberlain said. “A lot of the problems in Arden Arcade have to do with the age of the housing stock.”
Key county decision-makers, including County Executive Nav Gill and Supervisor Susan Peters, who represents Arden Arcade, were out of town on vacation last week and unavailable to speak to The Bee. In an emailed statement, Gill said officials are “aware of the poor conditions of some rental properties in the older sections of our unincorporated county,” a situation he said triggered the creation of the inspection program.
“We’re in the process of bringing on more code enforcement officers to inspect and work with owners to bring their rental properties up to code,” he said.
In 2014, 54 percent of Arden Arcade’s 92,000 residents lived in rental housing, the highest percentage of any city or community in the county, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
To some degree, the county relies on complaints from residents to enforce building codes, Chamberlain said. He said it’s unlikely that the Afghan refugees filed code complaints with the county, perhaps because some of them can’t speak English well. He said he wasn’t aware of the concentration of Afghan refugees in some complexes until he was interviewed by The Bee.
For the most part, the refugees have been placed in the complexes by four resettlement agencies: International Rescue Committee; World Relief; Opening Doors; and the Sacramento Food Bank, most of which have headquarters within a few miles of the complexes. They say it’s growing increasingly difficult to find affordable housing for the refugees, who lack a U.S. credit history. In Arden Arcade, most of the refugees interviewed by The Bee say they pay around $700 a month in rent.
Carl Simpson, who became head of the City of Sacramento’s code enforcement division last year, after running county code enforcement before, said Sacramento County lacks the personnel needed to inspect rental housing. The county and the city have the same number of dedicated inspectors, four, but the county is responsible for 108,000 rental units, compared to 65,000 in the city.
Simpson said he also has more inspectors available to back up his rental inspectors when the city finds properties with a lot of violations.
Chamberlain acknowledged he could use more inspectors, saying each one inspects 300-400 units a week on average. While the county tries to inspect properties that are designated as troubled once a year, other rental properties only get inspected once every five years, he said.
Many of the refugees have been clustered in three apartment complexes in Arden Arcade: Skyview Villa on Edison Avenue; Villa Capri on Trussel Way and another complex on Bell Street. All three complexes are on the county’s problem property list, but in some cases had gone more than two years without county citations when The Bee interviewed Chamberlain about apparent violations in February of this year.
As a result of The Bee’s questions, Chamberlain said he sent inspectors out to the three complexes again. The inspections turned up multiple health and safety violations, in some cases far more than what the county found in previous inspections, records show.
The owners were cited for health issues, including having cockroaches, rats and bedbugs in the apartments. They were also cited for building safety violations, including dry rot, which in some cases was found throughout the properties on staircase support beams and the undersides of balconies.
Concern about dry rot in rental property was raised last year, following the collapse of a stairway in Folsom that killed a college student, and a balcony collapse in Berkeley that killed six young adults from Ireland. In both cases, city building officials blamed dry rot for the collapse.
A lot of the problems in Arden Arcade have to do with the age of the housing stock.
Sacramento County code enforcement chief Barry Chamberlain
The county has ordered the property owners to replace rotted wood and to install protective barriers so wood beams and other supportive features are not exposed to moisture, records show. The orders were sent at different times in recent months and gave the owners about two months to complete the work.
County records show that building permits have been obtained to repair dry rot at the three complexes.
Sumit Sharma, owner of Skyview Villa, said last week he has obtained building permits for the work required by the county and has completed nearly all of it, and will likely finish it within a week.
Skyview had passed through a series of absentee owners, including lender JPMorgan Chase, before Sharma bought the 55-year-old complex for $4.1 million from a limited partnership in San Francisco in November 2012.
Sharma said he quickly discovered that the complex was riddled with bad actors. “One pimp took over nine apartments, bringing his girls in and out in his red car with 49ers flags,” he recalled in an interview with The Bee earlier this year. “Whenever he passed us, he’d drive with his right hand and wave his gun out the window with his left.”
Sharma said he evicted the bad actors and worked with the sheriff’s department to clean it up. Calls to the complex went down.
Sharma said he has spent more than $1 million on repairs, but has struggled to rid the complex of bugs. “If you have 50 tenants with roaches and two don’t complain, you’ll never get rid of the problem,” said Sharma. “I bring in my pest control company to do 40 units every month.”
Emily Chen, a Cupertino resident who owns Villa Capri and the Bell Street complex, did not return messages from The Bee. Chamberlain said it’s not uncommon for his inspectors to have problems with absentee landlords like Chen.
Rental housing complaints
What: Sacramento County has a rental housing inspection program for complaints about unsafe and unhealthy housing in the unincorporated areas. The county’s code enforcement officers will inspect potential violations and require property owners to make improvements if the properties don’t meet health and safety requirements.
How: Residents with complaints should call 311, an information system designed to connect people to county services. Operators on the 311 system will take information needed for the complaint and forward it to code enforcement.
Who: Anyone can file a complaint and while they must submit their name and address, the information is kept confidential.