Fixing Blight 

Oakland plans to overhaul its scandal-plagued blight enforcement division, but will the reforms work?

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With homeowners continuing to feel the crunch of the recession, more and more abandoned properties are sure to line Oakland's streets. The city's foreclosure rate was more than double the national average in late 2011, according to the real estate service That's why the current problems in the city's blight abatement program are so crucial to residents, and why the success of reforms is so important.

As it currently functions, the city's code enforcement division relies on complaints from neighbors to find blighted properties. In the 2010-11 fiscal year, there were more than 8,500 such complaints in Oakland. The Building Services division looks into the complaints, and then uses a combination of inspections and fees to coax property owners into action. After finding one or more city code violations on the property, the inspector is supposed to send a notice to the owner — who might be a homeowner, a landlord, or, increasingly, a bank. The owners then have between thirty and sixty days to fix the problem, and if they miss the deadline, the city will send out a contractor to do the job for them. The city charges the property owner a fee for this service, and the fee turns into a property lien if not paid in seven days.

This process, however, has been plagued by serious problems. The Alameda County Civil Grand Jury, made up of private citizens whose job is to investigate government agencies, detailed a series of abuses in Building Services in a report released last July. Oakland property owners testified to the grand jury that when they tried to contest citations, the inspector who cited them (or his or her direct supervisor) denied the appeal without sending it out of the division. Some owners said that contractors came to clean up their properties before their deadline to fix it, resulting in expensive liens.

What's more, the grand jury investigation looked into the division's history of corrupt contracting practices. A review of the code enforcement contracts with cleanup companies by this reporter confirmed what the panel members found: a disproportionate percentage of high-value contracts went to a company owned by Arthur Young. City documents show that while he won over one-third of contracts awarded in the fiscal years between July 2006 and June 2011, Young pulled in more than half the money paid to contractors during that time.

The Oakland Tribune reported in September that Young had been married to the sister of Building Services Inspection Manager Antoinette Renwick. Oakland resident Michelle Cassens, whose complaints about Building Services helped prompt the grand jury probe, had pointed out a relationship between Renwick and Young as far back as 2010. Cassens also had noted that Renwick had received a $50,000 loan from Young; Renwick resigned in October of 2010. The grand jurors reviewed evidence that they said confirmed the relationship, and said the contracts created a "perception of impropriety" at Building Services.

City Councilwoman Jane Brunner and other public officials have demanded that city staff find a way to strengthen the conflict-of-interest policy in the Building Services division, which apparently didn't flag the relationship between the contractor and the building inspection manager.

These bad practices, meanwhile, have been compounded by a perception that Building Services is out solely to make revenue for the city. Homeowners like Cassens and her husband Gwillym Martin also have contended that the fines and liens levied by the city amount to more than the cleanup costs. Cassens and Martin have dug for evidence of bad behavior from Building Services since they fought against the division's order to demolish their West Oakland home in 2009. They detail their efforts publicly on their website, and Martin is currently suing the city for allegedly illegal fines generated by code enforcement; in the suit, he contests the idea that the fines reflect the actual cost of cleanup work.

But the perception that Building Services is just out to make money for the city is inaccurate. According to the city administrator's office, the Development Services Fund, a cost-recovering fund that includes all revenue from Building Services, has spent $8.4 million more than it brought in since the 2006-07 fiscal year. Last fiscal year, the fund barely broke even for the first time since 2007, bringing in about $880,000.

Nonetheless, city staff has been designing reforms that move away from neighbor's complaints and revenue generation, in part because of the public perception that the city is just out to make money. "The goal of the new program design is for code enforcement to focus its regulatory activities on priority community revitalization issues," a report from the city administrator reads.

The reform effort is expansive. First, a private consulting firm, Management Partners, has looked at how fees are structured and complaints are resolved — essentially the best-practices angle on reform. For the goals of addressing larger Oakland problems like asthma and decrepit apartment complexes, an Oakland-based public policy firm, Public Health Law and Policy, is working pro bono with the county public health department.

In an effort to get feedback on the suggestions that result from all of these efforts, city staffers are taking the proposed changes to a task force made up of Oakland property owners and tenants, as well as professionals from government and the real estate business. The task force is reviewing the ideas for reform now, and their feedback will be included when the city administrator's office takes the plan to council later this spring.

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