Fighting Blight with Better Enforcement

This piece originally appeared in the Ingleside-Excelsior Light. Link here.

Every neighborhood has those dilapidated buildings that have stood for years, slowly deteriorating, with nothing being done to fix things. You know the building — it’s the one with the front stairs caved in or the windows boarded up or broken. It’s the one with trash and junk piled so high you can’t see in the windows. It’s the one with no tenants living there, but there still seem to be people coming in and out at night. These blighted properties aren’t just eyesores — they are public safety hazards. They create dangerous health conditions, fire hazards, and draw squatters and criminal activity.

Ingleside and the Excelsior have experienced this on both commercial corridors and residential areas. These problems don’t just happen overnight — they are the result of years of neglect and inaction by property owners. But, just as important, they are the result of a broken code enforcement process by the City.

We as a city need to do better in identifying blighted properties and then bringing these buildings into compliance. Too often, a complaint is filed by a neighbor, and nothing seems to happen. An inspection takes place, maybe a notice of violation is issued, but the problem persists year after year.

To address this, I recently introduced a legislative reform package at the Board of Supervisors to provide the City with better tools for enforcement and to hold our departments accountable for taking action when serious code violations go unresolved.

Currently, the Building Inspection, Fire, and Health Departments each have different codes enforcement processes, including differences in how these departments conduct investigations, issue notices of violations, hold administrative hearings, and assess penalties. It makes little sense to have different departments approaching the same fundamental problem — making our buildings safe and habitable — with different processes. It’s confusing for property owners and neighbors, and it hampers interdepartmental coordination, thus creating accountability gaps.

The end result is too many problem properties caught in enforcement purgatory. My legislation will set a single, uniform process with defined deadlines for enforcement that all these departments will follow. This way when a notice of violation is filed, residents will know that there is a specific time frame and process in which action will be taken by the City.

However, even the best code enforcement process can’t account for the serial code violators that flagrantly ignore the rules. That’s why my legislation also includes a provision allowing the City Attorney’s Office to file suit, regardless of whether a department has referred a case to the City Attorney. Currently, the City Attorney typically can’t act unless a department requests such action. If departments take no action, as happens all too often, the City Attorney simply can’t do anything. Our City Attorney’s Office, led by Dennis Herrera, does a tremendous job identifying egregious code violations, and we should empower the City Attorney to go after these violators.

My legislation also requires monthly reporting from the departments on open code enforcement cases, including the status of every notice of violation issued. By requiring this information, we see if there are properties stuck in the enforcement process due to inaction or other bureaucratic logjams. When violations are identified, they either need to be corrected, or passed on for review by the City Attorney.

One other important piece of this legislation is to create a low interest, revolving loan fund for property owners to correct code violations. The goal of this legislation, and of our code enforcement process, is to bring buildings into compliance. Yet at times, small property owners don’t have the means to address badly needed repairs. This loan fund will help property owners who want to do the right thing but can’t afford to do so.

Improving building safety and removing blight is good for tenants, property owners, and our neighborhoods. The City should not be part of the problem, but rather part of the solution. This legislation will improve our process and address these critical health and safety issues. Our neighborhoods deserve better.

CA State Senator. Urbanist. Environmentalist. Advocate for transit, housing, clean energy, criminal justice reform, health, ending poverty. Democrat. 🏳️‍🌈

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