Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle
The program ended a month before the Ghost Ship fire with alarming results: Three-quarters of all inspected buildings had fire hazards or habitability issues threatening the life or safety of tenants, ranging from inaccessible emergency exits and broken fire alarms to flammable materials and extension cords running across floors.
Under the Safe Housing Inspection Program, fire inspectors examined 138 apartment buildings in the city’s San Antonio and East Lake neighborhoods with a certain classification: They had to comprise six or more units and three or fewer stories. The inspectors found hazards in all but 33 buildings. Some apartments racked up multiple violations.
“It’s of grave concern to the city to have found this number of problems,” said Assistant City Administrator Claudia Cappio. “But it’s important to recognize they’re not categorized by seriousness. Those spanned a broad cross section of what you could possibly find.”
Still, the findings may have actually underestimated the prevalence of housing perils facing residents citywide. For one, the inspectors doing the walk-throughs were not trained to test for lead or mold. And buildings with fewer than six units — excluded from the program — tend to have the highest rates of habitability issues in Oakland, city data show. Lastly, problems that applied to multiple units were sometimes considered a single deficiency.
Now, after 41 fire deaths in five months and renewed attention to lead poisoning in the city’s poorest quarters, Oakland officials are considering deploying an inspection team to examine rental units across the city in a proactive fashion, rather than under the complaint-driven system that currently exists.
Although proactive rental inspection programs have seen success in cities such as Sacramento, San Jose and Los Angeles, barriers to getting it done in Oakland are steep. City officials are concerned the program would accelerate displacement, as some landlords would need to clear out tenants to make repairs. Creating it would also require changing city laws to give inspectors the authority to examine apartments without anyone asking them to.
The city estimates it would cost $1.5 million to $2.5 million to send a team of code enforcement officers on a proactive inspection drive for a year. Even so, only a small fraction of the apartment buildings in the city could be seen.
Some say a proactive inspection program — the idea for which has been tossed around at City Hall for the past six years — is long past due.
Larry Brooks, director of the Alameda County Healthy Homes Department, said the results out of the San Antonio and East Lake neighborhoods provide justification for Oakland to make a move.
“You’re going to find similar data when you spread out to other parts of the city,” Brooks said. “When you look at some of these things happening — shoddy repair work, balcony collapses, fires, poorly vented water heaters — doing a little bit of preventative work will reduce the chances of some people being hurt or killed. The pilot project is a good baby step. I think a citywide program is eventually where they have to go.”
City officials began considering the program as far back as 2011, when the Alameda County grand jury released a scathing report on Oakland’s Planning and Building Department, said Margaretta Lin, a deputy city administrator at the time.
“The proactive rental inspection policy required buy-in from the department head, from the building services director, the city administrator, the City Council and so forth and so on,” she said. “It’s not something city administration can go off and do on its own.”
While key players eventually got onboard, Lin said, leadership changes since then have caused the efforts to fizzle out.
But a series of deadly fires in recent months — in Fruitvale’s Ghost Ship warehouse, a West Oakland halfway house and a home in the far reaches of East Oakland — has resurrected the idea.
“The incentives have been there for years,” said Brooks, who worked to implement Sacramento’s program before coming to Alameda County. “There is a need to take action.”
A driving factor in making inspections proactive, not only complaint-based, is the idea that renters are often too afraid of losing their homes to complain when something is awry. Mayor Libby Schaaf said as she announced the pilot program in October 2015 that “it shouldn’t be a tenant’s burden to come forward” amid a “serious affordability crisis.”
Some residents of San Antonio and East Lake whose apartments were inspected say it has given them peace of mind.
Hasinnie Bennett, 21, who lives with his grandparents on East 15th Street near 21st Avenue, said their kitchen smoke detector has already proved to be lifesaving. One night recently, his grandmother, in a confused state, started lighting $20 bills on fire, he said. The alarm woke up Bennett, who put out the flames.
So when an inspection discovered their hallway smoke detector was broken, they got a new one right away.
“You’ll look at them and not really know how to utilize them,” he said. “But when that time comes and it goes off, that’s like a blessing because it has been a lot of fires in Oakland lately. I look at it differently now.”
Kimberly Veklerov is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @kveklerov