Fixing Blight 

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

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The resulting plan so far emphasizes proactive enforcement, which would be a sea change from code enforcement's current practice of only reacting to complaints. This approach would charge a majority of the department's inspectors with addressing problems like slum conditions in multi-unit family housing complexes, as well as public health problems like mold and lead exposure, said Margaretta Lin, deputy city administrator. "We are focusing primarily on aligning our code enforcement for being a vehicle or tool of addressing those problems," Lin said.

The holistic approach Lin outlines may well be merited. As Anisa Moore-Williams knows, blight is a symptom of a larger problem. "It's definitely connected to poverty."

And code enforcement won't ultimately solve the thorny problem of squatters on its own. Moore-Williams relied on police to have squatters removed from her neighborhood. And she feels for the people who squat in empty buildings, who often used to live in the neighborhood. "But now they don't have any place to be. They were incarcerated, and when they came out, everybody's gone," she said.

For this reason, the city administrator's goal to enhance "collaborative efforts with other City departments, public agencies, and community organizations" may produce positive results.

But it's not clear how the city will pay for a program that's more focused on social issues than revenue generation. The reforms aim to reevaluate the amount of fines that code enforcement can charge as the division launches a potentially costly community improvement campaign. The proactive inspection plan has five parts, and only two have some promise of built-in funding so far.

"The short answer is, we don't know partly what the fiscal impact will be," Lin said. "We are looking alternatively and creatively around what's going to pay for all these activities."

If city council approves the reforms this spring, Building Services will have a year to try out the changes and see both how they work in the community and how expensive they are. "The test is in the practice," Lin said.


In addition to deemphasizing revenue, the proposed reforms move away from using complaints to identify blight. Currently, the system depends heavily on complaints to find and cite blighted properties. Building Services received more than 8,500 complaints about blight and habitability between July 2010 and June 2011, which generated more than 30,000 inspections.

Complaints lead to citations and fines, which is the most effective way the city currently has to pay for code enforcement. The most common complement to a complaint system is a registry for abandoned or foreclosed buildings, but registries almost always work better when complaints are also a major focus. San Francisco's building inspection department started an abandoned building registry in 2009, requiring owners of vacant properties to register, pay a fee, and pass an inspection of the building's upkeep.

But even though the registry has helped San Francisco find and cite blighted properties, "we still rely and have always relied on the complaint process for people to let us know whether there might be a vacated or abandoned property," said William Strawn, a spokesman for the department.

If San Francisco had to work without complaints, "that would certainly make it more difficult," Strawn said. "It stands to reason to me that someone living next door to a building that might be abandoned has a much stronger incentive to let the building department know about it than whatever random effect we would have looking for one. I don't think that would be as cost effective or as efficient as what the complaint system is."

Lin, Oakland's deputy city administrator, said the city won't do away with complaints completely. Instead, complaints will be sorted into different priority levels. "The complaints that come in that hit the top priorities for the city will get top priority for inspection," Lin said. Previously, the division's policy was to treat each complaint as equally important.

But this reform worries Moore-Williams the most — that she might be left unheard if staff is less focused on complaints. "There's only so much a person could do with not enough staff," she said.

However, critics of Building Services say the complaints system can devolve into neighborhood feuds, and some egregious cases bear this out. The grand jury heard testimony about a case where an Oakland resident was given blank Building Services citations sheets and wrote up a neighbor for plants that allegedly blocked the sidewalk. The complaint allegedly led to real city citations and a drawn-out appeals process.

But for people like Moore-Williams, who are more concerned with drug houses than a neighbor's overgrown plants, complaints are vital. Moore-Williams said her neighbors currently think the city moves far too slow on keeping neighborhoods clean.

"Neighbors have a lot of power but we sort of give it away," she said. "But, at the same time, they [the city] need us to be, like, screaming at them."

From a crime-fighting perspective, Moore-Williams would like to see more nosy neighbors, not fewer. "We also need to be participants in that," she said, "not just say, 'You should fix this.'" Neighbors should be offering the city "suggestions on how, and what's happening, and really be involved."


One aspect of the proactive inspections that Lin says does have the potential to cover its own costs is the effort to crack down on blighted, foreclosed properties that are owned by banks. This is a pet project of At-Large Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan, who has frequently argued that it's time to hold banks accountable for their neglect of foreclosed properties.

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