Inspections from Hell 

Building inspectors in Alameda have been accused of harassing homeowners, soliciting bribes, and imposing heavy fines for questionable violations.

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But on May 28, the city again warned Doherty that he and his tenants, many elderly and disabled, had one week to get out. By the time city officials arrived to board up the house and disconnect the utilities that day, Doherty and his renters were already gone. "We left at 1 a.m. that morning," Doherty said. "We didn't want to be there when they came."

Fox, the city's private attorney, initially said Doherty could have prevented the eviction. "The day that everybody was asked to leave, Mr. Doherty could have gone down and taken out electrical permits," Fox said. "Mr. Doherty has decided he doesn't want to do that." (In a follow-up interview, Fox clarified that even if Doherty had asked for permits immediately before the eviction, that would not have been enough — the construction work itself would have needed to be completed before anyone could live in the house.)

But Doherty said there was nothing he could do. Officials rejected the 1987 permit he presented for his electrical work, he said, and the building department wouldn't have issued him any new permits unless he conceded his house was supposed to be a duplex. "It was a no-win situation," he said. "All they kept saying was duplex, duplex, duplex."

Standing in front of the crumbling Victorian on a recent morning, McFann said Doherty is wrong about the permits. "We could have argued about the number of units," he said, "but he would have been able to get permits to make the place safe. Our position has always been fix the building, and you can move back in," he added, surveying the jungle-like front lawn behind the partially collapsed white fence.

McFann also disputes Doherty's assertion that the mansion was converted into an apartment complex during World War II. His department has a permit on file from 1951, he said, which allowed a homeowner to convert the property from a single-family home to two units. Therefore, the property must have been converted to an apartment complex sometime after that, he said. If Doherty could prove the units have been there since the 1940s, he could be eligible for an "amnesty program" that would "legalize the units," McFann added.

Both Zagaroli and McFann say that even if Doherty had felt he could not get permits in time to prevent the 2008 eviction, he should have applied for permits the following year — after he was evicted. That's because in April 2009 — nearly a year after Doherty and his renters packed up and left the Central Avenue property in the middle of the night — a judge settled the duplex issue for good, siding with Doherty and saying the city could not force him to remodel his home into two units.

City officials removed the duplex citation from their list of code violations. They maintained, however, that there were "illegally constructed units" within the home as well as multiple electrical, plumbing, and structural violations that justified the eviction. By that time, Doherty had been living in the East Oakland warehouse for roughly ten months and was in the midst of an all-out legal battle with the city.

Even though the city no longer expects Doherty to bring the house down to two units, Zagaroli said he still needs to get permits for the "illegal construction" of apartments within the home. Regardless of whether Doherty or a previous owner built them, "the units are there illegally," she said.

Told about Doherty's predicament, Edrington, the director of the landlords' association, said that if Doherty's house was converted during World War II as he argues, it would be typical of the area. Most cities would not take such a hard line regarding these type of "illegal units," he said. "Most cities would leave you alone. During the war, a lot of houses got converted into multi-family [complexes]. There was a lot of that going on."

For example, Edrington estimates there are 10,000 to 20,000 "illegal units" in Oakland alone but says inspectors rarely go after such dwellings — partly because many have existed for decades and partly because they contribute to affordable housing. "Most building departments have a don't ask, don't tell policy," he said.

Meanwhile, the neighbors on Central Avenue wonder about the decaying mansion. Therese Hauer, a sixty-year resident of the neighborhood who lives across the street, said the house started to fall into disrepair in the 1950s — under a previous owner — and has gotten consistently worse since. "People walk by and stop and stare at it like it's some sort of museum," she said. "It's so sad."

For his part, Doherty says he can't afford to maintain the property without the rental income. So he lives in the East Oakland warehouse with his adult niece (also evicted from the Central Avenue property) and three Samoyed dogs, surviving off the social security checks while his lawsuit slowly winds through the courts and his three-and-a-half-story home decomposes.

The trial, moved to federal district court last year at the city's request, is scheduled to begin next year. Doherty recently filed for bankruptcy and is representing himself.

Editor's Note: The original version of this story stated that attorney Laurence Padway determined the number of houses in Alameda using records from the assessor's office. However, Padway says he does not remember exactly where the number came from. This version has been updated to clarify his statement.

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