A proposal to inspect vacant rental units for safety hazards and code compliance, has left at least one property owner grumbling.
The Housing Advisory Commission will hold a public hearing Thursday to get public input on the program, which requires the inspection of vacant rental housing units in order to assess whether they are in compliance with the housing code.
The legislation was spawned in part by the Aug. 20, house fire in which a UC Berkeley student and her parents were killed. The program would especially help students whose apartments regularly turn over. The frequent inspections might prevent fires due to code violations.
“This is a major first step in not being reactive to tenants calling with complaints, but having preventative inspections,” said Interim Housing Director Stephen Barton.
“This is not a perfect system. We don’t have regular inspections for units, but it’s a step in that direction. We can take this on and then evaluate how this is serving tenants in general, and assess whether we need to go further,” Barton added.
Peggy Schioler of the Berkeley Property Owner’s Association took strong exception to the proposal.
“It’s like being found guilty until proven innocent, and you have to pay to be proven innocent,” she said. “I’m guilty until I pay for an inspection and that’s an insult,” she added.
Schioler’s point of contention lies in the $75 per unit fee landlords will be required to pay for the inspection. There is already a $200 fee for complaint-driven inspections.
“They come and inspect until they find something wrong, then they fix it, and they come back and inspect it again. The poorest landlords are getting hit with these fees. They already provide the lowest cost housing,” Schioler said.
Schioler contends she and other landlords are already feeling the financial brunt of being a Berkeley property owner by being subject to rent board, garage, fire, and elevator inspection fees, as well as business license and property taxes.
Housing Department Senior Planner Teri Piccolo who helped co-author the proposal says the new inspection process will ultimately save landlords money since proof of certification would counter tenant claims in case of litigation, and possibly reduce insurance costs.
“They’ll like it because on one level we’ll give them a safety certification and they’ll be able to show renters their unit is in compliance,” Piccolo said.
City Councilmember Kriss Worthington says the new program, in an already tight housing market, would allow the city to see just how many units are vacant and ensure that they meet the city’s safety requirements. “I think it’s very important that we make sure every unit is safe,” Worthington said. “It’s not like there are 10,000 vacant units out there. It’s a pretty targeted segment of the housing stock. It will require a lot of coordination to identify units and get them inspected,” Worthington said.
If implemented the city would hire one new inspector and a part time clerical assistant. The additional positions and the program at large, would be funded by a $485,000 Community Development Block Grant applied for by the housing department. The program will also be funded by the city’s general funds, with the ultimate goal of being funded solely by inspection fees.
Worthington expects the nine-member HAC will approve the plan, which would then bring the proposal before the City Council tentatively scheduled for March 13.
Piccolo remains optimistic that the plan will be passed by both HAC and the council. “So far I haven’t heard from people who are opposed to it, but we’re starting the process now, and we’ll hear what people have to say at the public hearing,” she said.
The meeting will be held this Thursday at 7:40 p.m. in the South Berkeley Senior Center, located at 2939 Ellis Street.