Little or no recourse for Sonoma County renters living in squalor
The government framework set up to protect Sonoma County renters from unsafe and unhealthy living conditions has developed such extensive cracks that it has left many tenants without public recourse save for the court system, where help often comes too late to make fixes or fight evictions ordered by landlords, a Press Democrat investigation has found.
The county and nine city departments charged with enforcing state health and safety laws on housing are understaffed, according to current and former employees, and most cannot keep up with their active caseloads, which are growing in both sheer volume and in the severity of alleged violations, according to records examined over the past six months by the newspaper.
In some cases, building officials or enforcement officers who investigate complaints of code violations are allowed to cherry-pick which cases they pursue, while others can be shelved and forgotten about without regular prodding by tenants or their advocates, according to current and former inspectors from code enforcement departments throughout the county.
'Sometimes we have politicians telling us, 'We want you to look at this one,'' said Mark Setterland, Santa Rosa's chief building official who was in charge of the city's code enforcement division until November. 'Sometimes we have people who are the squeaky wheels — complainers who constantly call. It's easier to deal with that person now rather than a City Council member or the city manager a month from now.'
The result is that landlords found to be in violation of state health and safety codes can delay housing fixes for years. Sometimes they do nothing, current and former code enforcement officials said.
'We have this attitude that as long as they're making progress and moving forward, we're going to try to be flexible with them,' Setterland said. 'There are some who can't afford to fix everything at once, so they sit and wait until we come around again. But with a caseload as high as we have, when something comes off the radar, it stays off the radar for a while. … It can be years.'
Departments only track investigations once complaints are verified by inspectors in site visits. Lining up a site visit can take months, and the follow-up inspection to ensure property owners have fixed all violations sometimes comes years later, code enforcement records show.
'This is a public safety issue — it's as important as police and fire, and unfortunately tenants are forced to live in these conditions because they don't have any money or political power, so often they're at the mercy of the landlord,' said Sam Lynch, a former Santa Rosa code enforcement officer who retired last year after 16 years in the division. 'I've seen it all over. … People get sick, and they really could get hurt.'
In August and October last year, The Press Democrat requested code enforcement records on substandard housing cases and complaints in the county and its nine cities. Over the ensuing six months, the newspaper examined thousands of pages of notes and records from code enforcement officers, including mold surveys and photographs documenting problems such as leaky roofs, broken heating and rodent infestations. As well, the newspaper tracked cases where complaints had been verified by inspectors and fixes had been ordered.
Santa Rosa, which has the largest number of housing units in the county and is home to more than a third of its population, accounts for two-thirds of the 253 unresolved substandard housing cases verified between August and December. Most of the open cases had numerous violations at each residence.
In the county's jurisdiction, more than 63 unresolved cases — the second highest number — detailed a litany of substandard housing problems.
In cities other than Santa Rosa, violations can be hard to account for. In some areas, code enforcement departments do not keep track of substandard housing complaints, and often, government officials charged with enforcing state health and safety laws shift their responsibility to nonprofit organizations that serve as another safety net for tenants who complain.
Two of those groups, Petaluma People Services, which runs the Fair Housing Sonoma County program, and Legal Aid of Sonoma County, based in Santa Rosa, offer free advice and landlord-tenant mediation to resolve substandard housing disputes. In rare cases, an attorney will represent tenants in court during eviction proceedings.
But those services do not help tenants who are repeatedly ignored or evicted after complaining about substandard housing conditions, tenants' rights attorneys said.
'There are laws to protect people from being retaliated against for complaining, but unfortunately it's going to be really difficult if they don't have a lawyer,' said Edie Sussman, a Santa Rosa attorney who specializes in substandard housing. 'The nonprofits don't have the resources to take cases to court.'