San Diego's Shoddy Code Enforcement Keeps Problem Landlords In Business
The kitchen might seem like a strange place to store skateboards and Christmas decorations. But it's a logical use of space for Karina Villanueva because she can't use the cabinets for food.
Anything that's not double-bagged and tucked into a heavy-duty storage box or the refrigerator will have cockroaches crawling in it come morning.
These plastic food tubs are one of several common threads linking tenants throughout San Diego who spoke with KPBS and Voice of San Diego late last year for this joint investigation. All of them rent from Bankim Shah, a San Diego man who owns nearly 90 properties in the region and manages apartments for several others. His name rose to the top as one of San Diego's worst offenders in a review of 2013 code compliance complaints.
Residents, neighbors and city staff have filed 62 complaints against him since 2001, about a third of them for conditions so bad state law says no one should be forced to live in them.
The complaints detail gas leaks, sewage backups, missing windows and armies of roaches, or as one attorney put it, "enough to carry the whole house away."
But those complaints haven't gone far — another common thread.
Repeated requests for repairs through Shah and his managers have netted few substantive improvements, tenants said. In a brief phone call, Shah said he acts quickly when tenants ask for repairs, but he failed to follow through with an offer to provide KPBS and Voice of San Diego with proof.
And stacks of formal complaints against Shah show the city is essentially playing a game of whack-a-mole. The city's code enforcement team knocks out thousands of isolated complaints a year but does little to hold repeat offenders accountable.
'We Should Not Be Degraded'
For Villanueva, the roaches are the least of her worries. She's learned to cope, wiping down surfaces with bleach morning and night. Her sons, ages 7 and 4, have gotten used to the roaches, too.
"Before it was like, 'No! There's a cockroach!'" Villanueva said. "'Now they're like, 'Whatever.'"
But Villanueva couldn't ignore the mold.
Three months after she, her husband and their sons moved into their Barrio Logan studio apartment in 2010, mold spots began to appear on the bathroom wall. She tried to remove them with bleach, but the cleanings stripped the paint and revealed walls covered in dark mold. Shah had simply painted it over before they moved in, Villanueva said.
Her husband asked for something to be done each time he dropped off their rent check. When that didn't work, they had an attorney write to management and began withholding rent. Still, no repairs.
Then last summer, Villanueva called the city.
"The inspector then told her to Google mold, saying he could only do something about the apartment's missing smoke detector."
"(The inspector) was like, 'Whoa! Don't even take a shower here! Can you keep your door closed all the time so it won't go toward your kids?'" she said.
Villanueva said the inspector then told her to Google mold, saying he could only do something about the apartment's missing smoke detector.
She said the inspector's warning was too little, too late. Her family doctor had confirmed the mold was likely worsening her 7-year-old's asthma. He went from taking one medication to seven. He missed weeks of school. At one point, Villanueva said, her son had to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance.
So Villanueva began organizing her neighbors.
Down the hall, Sherry Godat was living with a missing window. A friend finally installed some plywood in the frame to get her through the winter. Below Godat, workers took days to replace another tenant's toilet. The family was using the bathroom at the gas station down the street.
Across town, Rosa Bergara was spending $30 a week on mousetraps. A fist-sized hole in the exterior wall of her apartment let rats come and go as they pleased.
"Even though this is what we can afford, we should not be degraded, and that's what I feel like (Shah) is doing," Godat said. She's on disability and rented an apartment owned by Shah because it's the only thing that fits her budget. "He's saying, 'This is what you guys deserve because you can't afford anything better.'"
The law says otherwise.
'There's Really No Reason To Fear Code Compliance'
The California Health and Safety Code lays out a long list of hazards that make a rental unfit for tenants — big things like lacking electricity or water down to seemingly innocuous things like dampness in rooms that lead to problems over time. And it gives local code enforcement units the power to do anything from press civil and criminal charges to seize property to remediate those hazards.
But San Diego isn't doing that when it comes to Shah. Tours of five of his buildings and a review of city inspection forms reveal conditions that violate the state housing code. In some cases, they're still present after a code inspector has closed his or her case on the property.
As recently as December, Shah's apartments, which he rents through his company, All Property Management, had broken windows, lacked hot water and heating, had water leaks and dampness, were infested with insects and rodents, had holes in exterior walls and between units, and lacked smoke detectors. All are prohibited by state law.
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Marc Whitham, an attorney who's worked with Villanueva, said there's a familiar pattern to the city's enforcement that lets the illegal conditions persist: Tenants call code compliance for help with a slew of housing law violations; an inspector comes out; the landlord knocks out a few of the cheaper, more obvious fixes (almost always adding a $10 smoke detector); and less than a year later, the symptoms of severe structural damage (the roaches and mold) come back. The cycle starts anew as if the city weren't already aware of the property.
"There's really no reason why landlords need to fear code compliance," Whitham said.
Mike Richmond, San Diego's deputy director of code compliance, said part of the problem is that state law doesn't let his staff enforce rules against infestations and mold.
But that's not entirely true.
A 2013 law authored by state Sen. Ben Hueso, a San Diego Democrat, deputized code enforcement officers to police roach, bed bug and rodent infestations, a fact Richmond wasn't aware of. And last year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed another Hueso bill that lets enforcement officers require landlords to exterminate pests and fix the underlying cause of infestations (typically water leaks).
Hueso said National City and several cities throughout the state have implemented the changes.
"It's distressing after all the work that has been done in this area to try to give the cities the tools they need to hold people accountable," Hueso said. "When the city cannot go in and correct a situation that is harming people's lives, it is a big problem."
"When the city cannot go in and correct a situation that is harming people's lives, it is a big problem."
And while the housing law doesn't say which kind of mold or how much is illegal, the California Department of Public Health has been advising cities since 2011 that they can enforce laws against water leaks as a means to address mold.
But San Diego code enforcement officers continue to tell tenants like Villanueva there's nothing they can do about roaches and mold. Their policy, said Richmond, is to refer tenants to the county. A spokesman from the county's Land Use and Environment Group said the county does not have an agreement with the city to handle such violations. Its inspectors will not take action against landlords in San Diego, the spokesman said.
Whitham said the excuses point to a deeper problem — an unwillingness to make an example of problem landlords.
"I have no doubt in my mind that if you call out some of the worst offenders and say, 'These laws matter and you will meet the full force and weight of the City Attorney's Office if you do not believe so,' would change things," Whitham said.
Rooting Out Violations Where No One Lives
The only time the city has taken Shah to court was in 2011 for renting a building to a medical marijuana dispensary. But more than a decade of tenant complaints against Shah and a 2013 email obtained through a public records request confirm the city is aware of other issues with his properties.
The email is from a city environmental health inspector to Shah regarding a pile of mattresses in the alley off of one of his Normal Heights buildings.
"The items must be removed," the email says, and not "simply transferred to another one of your 26 properties."
Shah didn't respond to several interview requests, but said over the phone he's actively maintaining his many properties. He said it's up to the tenants to call in their concerns and respond to his notices requesting access to their units.
Indeed, several repair trucks and handymen appeared to be present during visits to his properties. But multiple tenants at those addresses pointed out active roach infestations, missing windows and sagging floors. They also pulled out stacks of photos showing a large hole between first- and second-floor bathrooms, handymen installing new linoleum over live termites and roaches in a child's cereal bowl.
When asked why the city has not built a substantial case against Shah for maintaining known substandard conditions in his apartments, Richmond said that's not how the system works.
"With our current staffing levels, we don't really have an ability to be proactive, where we're going out searching around for things," Richmond said. "If there are problems out there, we'll get a report and then we'll open a case and go and investigate it. But we have to look at every case individually."
The City Attorney's Office has stepped in, asking various other landlords to resolve particularly egregious situations — people living without toilets and electricity. The majority of those cases were settled out of court for administrative fees and relocations costs for the tenants.
But Deputy City Attorney Gabriela Brannan said her office cannot take Shah to task for multiple violations unless code compliance identifies a pattern of abuses.
"We handle cases according to how they're referred to us by code enforcement," Brannan said. "We need evidence. We need somebody to gather that evidence for us so we rely on the (code enforcement) investigators to do that."
There are situations where code compliance has proactively rooted out violations — they're just at properties where no one lives.
"There are situations where code compliance has proactively rooted out violations – they're just at properties where no one lives."
Inspectors have cracked down on blighted, foreclosed homes in southeastern San Diego, visiting thousands of boarded-up homes and collecting fees from the banks that own them. And they've waged a high-profile campaign against medical marijuana dispensaries, opening 103 such cases during fiscal 2014.
"The city attorney has showed that if you want to make something a priority, you can," said San Diego City Councilman David Alvarez.
While Alvarez helped set the current enforcement priorities by joining in the call for a heavy hand on illegal dispensaries and authoring the foreclosure ordinance, he said it's time to shift gears.
Alvarez has asked Mayor Kevin Faulconer to boost code compliance funding this year so the department can proactively address substandard housing. He also asked the council's land use committee to explore a program that would put liens on properties until the owners clean them up.
Alan Pentico, executive director of the San Diego Apartment Association, a trade organization for landlords, said any new rules should take into account that most property owners run into compliance issues on accident.
"It's not easy to manage property, especially in California. There's a lot of rules and a lot of things that change on a regular basis," Pentico said.
But he said flagrant disregard of the housing code is unacceptable.
"There are laws and we have to follow them," Pentico said.
'When Everyone Just Moves, Communities Fracture'
So, what would proactive code enforcement look like? Villanueva has seen it, but not from code compliance.
When the fire department arrived with medics to take her son to the hospital, they noticed the fire extinguisher in a communal hallway had expired. They called Shah and told him to replace it right away.
As for the issues inside her apartment, Shah finally replaced the moldy drywall last September — four years after Villanueva first alerted management of the problem, a year after attorneys got involved and three months after a code inspector came to her apartment.
The ordeal was over, but not before one last insult. Shah's workers dragged the contaminated materials through the 250-square-foot space uncovered, the dust and spores igniting one final asthma flare-up, Villanueva said.
In December, Villanueva moved her family into a brand-new affordable housing development. In a phone call earlier this month, she said her sons have stopped using their asthma inhalers.
But it's not the happy ending Villanueva was hoping for. Like all of Shah's tenants who spoke with KPBS and Voice of San Diego, she had hoped she could stick it out until every last repair was made.
"I don't want this to happen to other people," Villanueva said. "It's not fair for people to live like this."
And Whitham said it's not a satisfactory resolution in terms of public policy, either.
"The problem is not just the individual family that's having to put up with the cockroaches. It's their neighbors, and their neighbors and the neighborhood," Whitham said. "When everybody is expected to just move on every 18 months, children have to change schools, it causes poor performance in school, you don't get to know your neighbors, that causes communities to fracture, it causes increased crime rates.
"When we don't have the will as a city to do something about the housing stock that we know is decaying right beneath our feet, then how can we expect communities to thrive?"