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Quality of Life

Audit Details Little Accountability For Dangerous Housing Conditions In San Diego

Sherry Godat reveals a plywood board in her window frame Nov. 20, 2014. Bankim Shah promised to replace the missing window before she moved in. A friend installed the plywood after months passed with no repairs.
Brian Myers, Media Arts Center San Diego
Sherry Godat reveals a plywood board in her window frame Nov. 20, 2014. Bankim Shah promised to replace the missing window before she moved in. A friend installed the plywood after months passed with no repairs.

Audit also finds slow response times to high-priority violations

Audit Details Little Accountability For Dangerous Housing Conditions In San Diego
Residents dealing with unsafe housing conditions were likely to receive the same treatment as those complaining about messy yards, according to an audit of San Diego's Code Enforcement Division released Thursday.
Speak City Heights is a media collaborative aimed at amplifying the voices of residents in one of San Diego’s most diverse neighborhoods. (Read more)

An audit of San Diego's Code Enforcement Division released Thursday reveals residents dealing with unsafe housing conditions were likely to receive the same treatment as those complaining about messy yards and signs blocking sidewalks.

"CED's average response times for high-priority and low-priority cases are nearly identical," the report says. "Slow responses to high-priority violations that threaten health, safety, and environmental quality are not due to a lack of resources, but rather, a failure to appropriately prioritize them."

The average response time for high-priority cases like leaking sewage, exposed electrical wires and uninhabitable living conditions was 11 days – five times longer than the division's goal of two days. The department handles everything from substandard housing, to illegal garage conversions, to noise disturbances.

The audit also found the division's hesitance to issue fines likely contributes to repeat offenses and slow repairs.

The audit confirms a February KPBS and Voice of San Diego investigation that found renters had little recourse for repeated code violations by one San Diego landlord. Residents complained about Bankim Shah's properties 62 times between 2001 and 2013 but continued to live with mold, roaches, gas leaks and missing windows.

"Code Enforcement provides a vital service in improving the quality of life in San Diego," City Auditor Eduardo Luna said. His office made 12 recommendations, including updating its system for tracking cases. The current system wasn't built for code enforcement and doesn't prioritize violations by severity. It also assigns a default of 25 business days for investigators to respond to all complaints, despite goals of two and five days for higher priority cases.

In September, the San Diego City Council approved a request to purchase a computer system tailored to code enforcement work.

Auditors also recommended the department develop a clearer framework for issuing fines and penalties. They found the Code Enforcement Division could have collected $700,000 in fees for having to re-inspect properties last year but only collected $20,000. In one case, the department spent $4,185 to conduct 15 inspections at one problem property but only issued a citation for $500.

Other recommendations aim to shore up the division's performance review system. Auditors found the current methodology inadvertently overstates the percentage of cases cleared on time.

Councilman Scott Sherman chairs the Audit Committee and said in a press release he'll "do everything in my power to make sure these audit recommendations are implemented in a timely manner."

"This performance audit shows that much needed improvements and reforms are necessary to increase effectiveness within Code Enforcement," Sherman said. "This Audit is just the beginning. It is now up to the City Council and Code Enforcement to implement improvements."

Development Services Department Director Robert Vacchi, who oversees code enforcement management, agreed with the findings and said he plans to implement all of the recommendations.

In a statement, Deputy Director Michael Richmond highlighted the cuts made to the department.

"The audit notes that starting in 2007, Code Enforcement management staff was cut by 75 percent and staffing levels were cut by 68 percent which forced the City to triage workloads in lieu of concentrating on case priority," Richmond stated. "This year, we’ve added resources to combat sub-standard housing, ratcheted up training of our inspectors and started replacing the interim complaint tracking software with a state of the art case management system that will better track and prioritize cases."

Richmond said reforms are underway in the department.

After the KPBS and Voice of San Diego investigation shed light on deficiencies in the department, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer budgeted for four new investigators to tackle substandard housing complaints. The division restructured its enforcement teams to work more effectively on high-priority cases. And investigators completed training so they could help tenants dealing with insect and rodent infestations.

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