The Public Eye

Sacramento County slow to respond to some unsafe rental conditions

A rental sign in Sacramento County.
A rental sign in Sacramento County.

On Aug. 13, Sacramento County received a complaint about conditions in two units of the Magnolia Court Apartments, a North Highlands complex that had generated numerous code violations in recent years and landed on a list of the county’s most troublesome rental properties.

The complex’s manager, Nate Bawari, said maintenance on the units was completed about two weeks ago, more than two months after the original complaint. The work included securing a second-floor patio that had become so wobbly people could not use it, he said.

The county’s response to complaints of substandard and unsafe housing is usually quicker, with cases initiated through the 311 phone system being closed in an average of 17 days, The Sacramento Bee found in an analysis of 2,400 complaints made from Jan. 1, 2014 through the end of last month. However, dozens of cases required more than 100 days to close, and 240 cases remained open after an average of more than 50 days.

The county closes cases when it determines a complaint is unwarranted or the property owner fixes the problem.

The inspection of rental housing has become a statewide issue since fatal structure collapses at apartment complexes killed college students in Berkeley and Folsom this year. While the Berkeley City Council approved stricter inspection requirements on rental properties, their counterparts in Folsom did not.

Some housing advocates would like to see a more thorough response to housing complaints in Sacramento County.

“Taking more than 100 days can really be a problem when you’re talking about problems like faulty wiring, which can lead to fires,” said Veronica Beaty, land- use policy director at the Sacramento Housing Alliance. Housing problems in the Sacramento area also include mold, missing smoke detectors and structural weaknesses, such as sagging porches, she said.

Barry Chamberlain, who heads the county’s code enforcement division, said officers try to immediately determine if a complaint involves a safety problem and visit the site that day if it does. But he concedes that the county doesn’t always know the risks.

He said the original complaint at Magnolia Court did not address the wobbly patio. He said the county still hasn’t inspected the property to make sure the patio and other parts of the apartment are safe.

“We made a mistake,” he said. “Someone should have followed up.”

In the last 22 months, the county received 742 emergency housing complaints through its 311 system. At the end of last month, 82 of those remained open and had been so for an average of 56 days.

Carl Simpson, who had Chamberlain’s job before he took a similar position at the city of Sacramento, said the county lacks the number of inspectors needed to thoroughly investigate problem properties.

The county has four inspectors dedicated to investigating complaints and another six inspectors who handle separate investigations as part of the county’s rental housing inspection program. The program, which aims to keep all rental property up to code, relies largely on self-reporting by apartment managers, along with surprise inspections by the county.

Chamberlain said the county does a good job with the staff it has, but it could always use more inspectors. They are responsible for 105,000 housing units and try to inspect 10 to 15 percent of those a year.

Complexes such as Magnolia Court create additional problems for the county, Chamberlain said. The complex is one of about 100 on the county’s “problem property” list that receive annual inspections by the county.

Bawari said Magnolia Court will fix problems if residents bring them to his attention. He said he has only worked there since last month.

The Balmoral Arms Apartments in Arden Arcade are also on the county’s worst offenders list, Chamberlain said. In the database analyzed by The Bee, the complex had more complaints –20 – than any other property. While all of the cases have been closed, some had taken two or three months to finish.

Chamberlain said he did not know what held up the cases there. A woman who identified herself as the property manager referred questions to a district manager; a message left for the district manager was not returned.

Balmoral Arms has a file of complaints at the county that is 6 inches thick. One resident complained this summer that the complex had a bedbug infestation. The resident reported that complex owners said they had to cancel extermination efforts three times because they could not pay for the work.

Chamberlain said the county will receive help handling problem properties from “community prosecutors” in the District Attorney’s Office, who focus on neighborhood nuisances.

Beaty said the county needs to expand its code enforcement efforts so that more places get inspected each year. She is critical of the self-inspection policy that lets most landlords provide their own assessment of conditions.

Linda Kite of the Healthy Homes Coalition said inspections have made a big difference in the quality of rental housing in Los Angeles, where her nonprofit is based. She cites one study that found that more than 90 percent of the city’s rental housing had been inspected over a seven-year period.

“Code enforcement as a tool to improve housing and the health of the occupants is a tried-and-true tool in one of our toughest cities – Los Angeles,” Kite said.