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Glendale Gets Systematic About Rental Housing Inspections

Contact: Elena Bolbolian, administrative analyst, City of Glendale, Neighborhood Services Section; phone: (818) 548-4802; fax: (818) 240-7239; e-mail: ebolbolian@ci.glendale.ca.us.

In 2002, the City of Glendale undertook a demonstration project to ensure that rental housing in a specific neighborhood met minimum habitability standards. From 2002 to 2004, inspectors visited properties with two or more units located in that neighborhood to educate residents and inspect the premises. Even though participation was voluntary, 92 percent of the properties were inspected. As a result of the project, housing standards improved, and the demand on traditional code enforcement services declined.
 
Restrictive Housing Market Puts Pressure on Existing Rentals
 
There is little opportunity in Glendale to develop new or replacement housing units — either affordable or market rate — due to the combined cost of construction and the excessively expensive underlying land value. Because relatively few housing units are being built, the city’s existing housing needs to have an extended usable life. Already high property values continue to rise, which results in owners selling multi-family buildings with violations in order to take advantage of the profits generated by a tight real estate market. New owners purchase the buildings, fix them up and in turn increase the rents by a large margin to cover the higher mortgage costs. Once refinanced, there is little money for maintenance — an escalating problem the city wanted to mitigate.
 
Glendale’s code enforcement resources are limited, with only one inspector for every 38,000 dwelling units. It was important that those limited resources be used effectively and that activities focused on long-term compliance rather than short-term fixes. Traditional code enforcement, with its reliance on exterior observations and complaint-driven violations, did not produce long-term, sustained improvements to properties and neighborhoods. Though all neighborhoods and properties were regularly subject to “sidewalk surveys” by code enforcement staff, they did not conduct interior inspections except when responding to complaints. Property owners quickly learned that by maintaining the exterior of buildings, they escaped the scrutiny of the interior inspections. As a result, the outside of the buildings were in relatively good shape but the interiors needed maintenance.
 
Inspection Process Becomes Demonstration Project
 
The greatest impact the city could have on housing quality and affordability would be to make sure the existing housing units were regularly maintained. A systematic approach to rental housing inspection would meet this goal while making the best use of the city’s limited code enforcement resources.
 
Ultimately the program’s goal was to ensure that rental housing units would meet minimum habitability standards, while training residents to care for and maintain their units. A secondary benefit would be the reduction, over time, in the demand for complaint-driven code enforcement.
The city secured funding from the state Department of Housing and Community Development to develop the Mariposa Neighborhood Improvement Project (MNIP). As a demonstration project, the MNIP needed to focus on housing deficiencies and general conditions of dilapidation within a target area so performance could be measured and evaluated. The Mariposa neighborhood was chosen because it had:
  • Many homes with detached units that were constructed prior to 1940;
  • Low income levels;
  • A significant number of multi-family buildings constructed to absolute minimum standards during the boom years of the 1980s and showing signs of deterioration; and
  • A high concentration of renter-occupied housing and a corresponding high rate of absentee ownership.
The neighborhood improvement project was set up to operate as a voluntary program with various stakeholders involved in its oversight. A public education specialist developed public outreach and education components for property owners, tenants and property managers. These included brochures, news articles and educational videos that focused on tenant responsibilities regarding unit maintenance. All efforts were translated into Spanish, Armenian and Korean, reflecting the demographics of the neighborhood. The brochures explained to renters how to maintain their units and understand their renter responsibilities to help prolong the life of their unit.
 
Checklist Helps Ensure Compliance
 
An administrative process was established geared toward assisting property owners rather than penalizing them to obtain compliance. They received multiple written notices from the city about the program (including housing code requirements formatted into an easy-to-use checklist) prior to the scheduled inspection so that they could fix deficiencies ahead of time.
 
A checklist was used at the inspection when both owner and inspector were present, giving the inspector the opportunity to work directly with the owner. Inspectors were hired because of their “salesmanship” abilities and trained to educate owners about the problems resulting from neglected routine maintenance. Properties were turned over to traditional code enforcement if results were not obtained administratively. All rental housing units were to be inspected triennially to ensure continued compliance with minimum habitability standards.
 
Following the inspection, either a certificate of compliance or deficiency notice was sent to the owner. Owners were given a specific time by which to make the re-pairs, usually 30 days, with the property moving into traditional code enforcement if repairs were not completed. All properties that passed inspection received certificates of compliance and were scheduled for the next triennial inspection.
 
Interior Inspections Benefit Tenants and Landlords
 
MNIP provided a reasonable means by which interior inspections could be conducted for all rental units. Over time, acceptance of the program continued to improve, with each party (city, property owner, renter) benefiting. Fully 92 percent of the properties inspected were in compliance with habitability standards at the final inspection, while only 8 percent were referred to code enforcement. Improved maintenance on the multi-family properties resulted in a 21 percent reduction in complaint-driven code enforcement, allowing resources to be deployed to other needs.
 
Tenant quality of life improved as well. Many tenants called the inspectors to personally thank them for their newly installed carpet or freshly painted walls. Tenants who previously did not report minor deficiencies to the city because they feared owner retaliation received the greatest benefit when the city initiated inspections.
 
Owners became more effective managers of their own properties. The inspections pinpointed general conditions of dilapidation, allowing property owners to remedy violations promptly and avoid extensive repairs that would cost substantially more if left unattended.
 
The program had a ripple effect on neighboring properties. Owners not subject to the inspections took the initiative to improve their properties by installing landscaping, painting their houses and performing other home improvements without being prompted.
  • The project had other benefits for renters, landlords and the city:
  • Using an administrative process resulted in greater buy-in from the property owners.
  • Reduced calls for code enforcement services allowed existing resources to be applied to other neighborhoods in greater need.
  • The usable life of the units was extended.
  • The program resulted in increased staff capacity in multiple language skills.
  • The portion of rent increases that were attributable to spikes in maintenance costs was stabilized.
Even though it was intended only as a promotional incentive, the certificate of compliance has become a desired commodity for marketing a building, documenting to the community and potential renters that the building is certified as being housing-code compliant.
 
The City of Glendale won an Award for Excellence for this project in the League Partners Award category of the 2005 California Cities Helen Putnam Award for Excellence program. For more about the award program, visit www.cacities.org/helenputnam.