Catherine Stifter From Capital Public Radio, this is The View From Here podcast.
Catherine Stifter I’m Catherine Stifter, producer of The View From Here. Today’s episode tells a story that is, well, it’s hard for many of us to imagine living like this. CapRadio’s Environment Reporter Amy Quinton is going to take us on a tour of some of Sacramento’s problem rental properties. Amy, you learned that thousands of renters in Sacramento are living in these substandard apartments. And at times they go without heat or electricity or running water. Some apartments are infested with cockroaches and rats.
Amy Quinton Some of the renters can’t afford anything better. They might have bad credit or an eviction record. Some landlords with buildings in disrepair are willing to let that slide in exchange for a high occupancy rate and a rent check.
Catherine Stifter I want to warn listeners: the living conditions we’re describing in this podcast are awful and inhumane. Tim King, the senior code enforcement officer for Sacramento County told Amy what he's seen.
Tim King I've seen massive infestations where bedbugs have literally taken over entire complexes…I've seen water leaks so bad where every room in an entire upstairs apartment complex is covered from wall to wall with mold where I couldn't even go into the room because I couldn't breathe.
Amy Quinton King leads a team of seven code enforcement officers that inspect nearly 50-thousand rental properties and respond to renters’ complaints. He says some of the owners may not know about maintenance issues or can’t afford to fix them. But others see their properties as investments that can turn a quick profit, not as a place where people must live.
Tim King More surprising is just dealing with some of the property owners and their lack of wanting to get some of the stuff fixed. They don’t care, some of the conditions that do exist in the county.
Catherine Stifter Amy you spent a day with Tim King. Is the code enforcement team able to inspect 50-thousand rental properties every year?
Amy Quinton No. It takes five years to inspect every rental property and that’s the way the program was designed. It’s important to point out that nearly 75 percent of all rental properties in Sacramento County are “self-certified” meaning their owners or property managers self-inspect, and the Rental Housing Inspection team audits those inspections.
But code enforcement officers spend almost half their time dealing with so-called “problem properties.” These are the properties that fail inspections again and again.
I rode along with Tim King in the county code enforcement Prius to find out more about them.
Catherine Stifter This is Place and Privilege, Episode 4, Not Up To Code
[sound of getting in car]
Tim King Try to squeeze in here. So the majority of our rentals are going to be usually in the Arden-Arcade area which is on this side of the freeway here. And also down south, primarily off of Florin, Oak Park and the Avenues area. That’s where there’s just, almost 90 to almost 100 percent rentals in those areas. The first property to take you over to is on Fair Oaks here it's one of the problem properties.
Amy Quinton And did one of the tenants call code enforcement is that how you found out about it?
Tim King This place has been on our radar for a while he's been a problem property for a long time. We originally were, got involved because the place burned down. It sat vacant for at least two years and transients were breaking into it and there was a lot of criminal activity on it. So he finally rebuilt it and he didn't build it with any heaters in it. And so all the tenants moved in and we get the call hey, I don't have a heater. So this is the front building that burned down, he rebuilt this so then we had to go now and find places for 23 families to be during Christmas time to live while he put heaters into the whole entire building.
Tim King Every winter this thing floods this whole parking lot and you can see where the apartment units are actually below the parking lot. So the water will actually flow off the parking lot and flood all the bottom units here almost every winter so every winter we get the call. They've got to fix their drainage and all these tenants down here at the bottom usually end up having to get displaced because they've got a foot of water in your apartment complex.
Tim King Per county code, they are supposed to maintain their garbage receptacles as you can see we drive by here. Fully loaded trash receptacle here. The tenants have no place to put their trash now so they are throwing it on the ground. The property owner feels like he’s saving money on trash pickup and all it does is the trash just overflows and the tenants having the trash overflow like that is going to create rats, it’s going to create the rodents and now they’re all going into the units as well. And you can’t get rid of the infestation if you’re constantly having trash pile up like this.
Amy Quinton Do you know how much rental units go for here?
Tim King These ones are going for about $800, depending on if you get a one bedroom two bedroom for about $800.
Amy Quinton That's surprising. $800 a month and that's the kind of condition.
Tim King Yeah. Inside's just as bad. They’re fully infested with cockroaches in there. Massive water leaks. The roof is, hasn't been replaced ever.
Amy Quinton Do you think this guy just doesn't have a lot of money?
Tim King No, I'm very familiar with this guy and he has a lot of money. He owns multiple properties and he's an owner that I would say that just has a really lack of understanding how to own a rental property I think in the county.
Amy Quinton He's just a slum lord.
Tim King He's just however you want to label him. [laughs]
Tim King This was one of our top three worst properties that we've ever had in the county. And you can see it actually looks really nice now. So this was actually one of our success stories we would actually only come here with the sheriff’s department because of the amount of crime. Constant shootings, prostitution, drug behavior in here. The property manager eventually quit and there was no manager for about a six month period here.
Amy Quinton Have you ever been scared to walk into a place?
Tim King Oh yeah. All our officers are mandated by our policy to where we have bulletproof vests. We go in as teams so we have a minimum of four officers when we go in.
Amy Quinton Wait, so when you do an inspection you have to wear a bulletproof vest?
Tim King We wear bulletproof vests, yes. So it's for our protection. This came about when there was an animal control officer that was killed about three years ago. Just knocking on the front door and they were shot. So now all our officers now wear that for our protection
Tim King So this one was a very unique situation. The old owner actually ended up getting Alzheimer’s and she forgot she owned the building and refused to say and she owned it.
Amy Quinton So where were the rent checks going?
Tim King They were going to the owner.
Amy Quinton Who had Alzheimer's and didn't believe that he or she owned the place.
Tim King So it took us a while. We had to get involved with the owners. Lot of tools and enforcement. They actually renovated every single unit you can see brand new doors all new paint jobs they redid almost like full renovations of every unit inside. They had to do major pest control to get rid of all the cockroaches that were just crawling. Some of the probably the worst cockroach infestations I've ever been in.
Tim King Most of the flooring was moving when you'd walk in. So I mean it wasn't like you had one or two, like the floor was literally moving. I've seen enough infestations and dealt with them that when you start seeing the little babies run around means they're mating and so when they're mating, they're multiplying at a very high pace rate and when you see the babies that are rocking around. Be mindful that these cockroaches are nocturnal creatures. They only come out at night. So when you're in there during the daytime and you see that many cockroaches you can imagine how many actually come out at night.
Amy Quinton My God! So they're sleeping in this and they're crawling all over them, I imagine.
Tim King Correct. I've seen them all over tables while they're eating breakfast and stuff like.
Tim King This is Balmoral. This is another one of our problem properties. Another owner that owns probably five or six other properties in the county. The calls for service through the sheriff is probably one of the highest here than most of the complexes in the area. So they're, kind of tells you when you're dealing with that type of an issue is usually the property managers aren't screening their tenants. And so you’re bringing in tenants just to hurry up and get the units rented out, but you’re not doing background checks on these people.
Tim King The owner definitely doesn’t want to put any money into it so we’re constantly dealing with things that are breaking as we’re dealing with the issues that have already broken, it just keeps getting worse. The pest control was so bad here that the bedbugs was actually the number one worst case that one of our pest control companies which is the biggest in Sacramento county has ever seen.
Tim King So they actually took me into the unit. They actually remove one of the walls and the nest was pretty much as big as the whole wall.
Amy Quinton I hear bedbugs are really difficult to get rid of.
Tim King They are, so that’s why it should never get to this state.
Amy Quinton When you're looking at this now see anything that's wrong?
Tim King I can tell you right now just from the windows above there's weather protection issues on those windows. These ones that are open here there's probably a massive amount of molds on the inside.
Amy Quinton Is it unhealthy?
Tim King Mold can be. Yes. We're not mold specialists per our code we only write up that it's visible mold. But there are toxic molds it can be very harmful to your health.
Amy Quinton So what process have you gone through with him, have you gotten to the point where you’ve taken him to court, or slapped him with fines and what are the fines like?
Tim King He's been assessed multiple fines and fees and penalties throughout our different inspections there.
Amy Quinton What are the fines?
Tim King We can issue it we call them administrative penalties and they can range from 100 to 500 to 1000 dollars a day. So depending on how many days we can assess, they can be up to 15-30,000 dollars for a penalty.
Tim King So this is another one of our, used to be one of our top three worst properties in the county. You can see they got all brand new windows that was all through rental housing. So we actually went through this complex multiple times with the owners. Went through about three different owners during this process and they have now renovated every unit in here and replaced every window which was a massive amount of money. All due to rental housing and now they're actually raising their rent here because it's doing so well and they're fully booked. People that are on waiting lists to get in here now.
Amy Quinton Really? So how much did they raise the rent?
Tim King I think they raised about 300 bucks every unit. So which is a lot for this area here.
Tim King Another one that had a high call service from the sheriff's department. So they've gotten rid of a lot of the bad tenants and they brought in a lot of good tenants now they’ve got a good property management crew. This is what we kind of want for all our properties in the county to be like.
Amy Quinton It says it's under new ownership so is that a recent thing?
Tim King It was the old owner pretty much didn't want to deal with code enforcement anymore. And so he sold it. And a new owner came in and renovated the whole place. So it was kind of a success story all around.
Amy Quinton So how much are rents here now?
Tim King I think they're going for around $1200, I think now.
Amy Quinton Did some of the tenants stay from the previous owner?
Tim King Not many. A lot of them, they moved on. Which I always educate our property owners that 50 percent of your problems are going to be from your tenants and in a good screening process if you have a good property manager who screens your tenants, get someone who's going to take care of your property, pay the rent on time, so you're not constantly in the eviction process all the time. You're going to lose rent three four months for an eviction process compared to having a good tenant that pays every month, that maintains it so you're not having to go in there all the time fix broken windows or things that they do inside and it's a money maker. And these places will make money if you can maintain them. But if you’re constantly having vacancies all the time or evictions you're not making money. And so it all comes back to that original screening of your tenants.
Amy Quinton Well for someone who has been evicted once they have it on their record, it's really difficult to find a place.
Tim King Correct. And that's why you know you and you're asking why some of them live in some of the places they do is because they can't find another place to live because now they have eviction. So it's one thing that these tenants got to be aware of it's not something that they should play around with. Yeah. They don't want that eviction on their record.
Amy Quinton Do you ever try to talk to the tenants? Like why didn’t you call code enforcement earlier?
Tim King Oh, all the time. We build relationships just as much with the owners as we do with the tenants. A lot of the tenants and owners just don’t know any better. They’re either new. Or they just don’t know their rights. The tenants have rights and so we refer them to the tenant/landlord programs that the county offers to give them legal advice on stuff that they can do. And just tell them that yeah, you gotta call code enforcement. These are things that you need to, don’t be afraid to tell your manager if something goes wrong. But a lot of tenants are afraid of, if you file a complaint, you’re either gonna get evicted or they’re gonna raise your rent. It’s always something that every tenant is scared of and so we’re always battling that. They won’t say anything. So how does the owner know to fix it, if they don’t know it even exists.
Catherine Stifter These conditions are the worst of the worst, right Amy? – I mean, how representative is this of Sacramento's rental housing?
Amy Quinton The Rental Housing Inspection Team has identified about 200 of these problem properties out of a total of 50-thousand rental properties in the county. A property gets listed if it fails inspections twice in one year. A lot of those are older buildings- 50, 60, 70 years old where owners just haven’t kept up with maintenance.
Catherine Stifter And if code enforcement only gets around to all the properties once in five years, how do they hear about these problems?
Amy Quinton Tim King told me they are a complaint driven department. They get nearly 200 complaints a month – most of them are from tenants, but also from property managers, neighbors, businesses and even anonymous callers.
Catherine Stifter Tim King mentioned that a lot of tenants are afraid to call code enforcement for fear of retaliation. When should someone call code enforcement and can a landlord evict someone just for calling?
Amy Quinton Good question. Obviously call the owner or property manager first and give them time to fix the problem. Code enforcement considers some complaints a priority and responds to them within 24 hours. These include lack of heat, electricity, running water or surfacing sewage. And then structural issues as well – if something may collapse they’ll respond in 72 hours.
Other code violations – cracked sinks or counters, doors that don’t have a deadbolt or peephole or aren’t weather sealed, cracked or chipped sinks or countertops, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors that don’t work, flooring that poses trip hazards…. It goes on and on.
And it is illegal to evict someone for calling code enforcement or for complaining about conditions. A tenant can sue. A tenant can also go through an eviction process and claim a defense that it’s in retaliation for complaining – but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be an easy case.
Catherine Stifter Amy Quinton, thanks for bringing us another chapter in the story of housing affordability in Sacramento.
Catherine Stifter Next on Episode 5. Beneath the Surface of Tahoe
Heidi Hill Drum There is a plethora of old rundown motel properties throughout the area. Those are those motels that were built back in the 50s, prior to the Olympics, in 1960. And they're still here and they haven't been upgraded and they haven't been renovated and they're acting as defacto affordable housing for many of our local workers.
Catherine Stifter You've been listening to The View From Here podcast.
Place and Privilege. Episode 4, Not Up To Code.
Produced by Amy Quinton.
Edited by Catherine Stifter.
Music by Glass Boy from his album Fade.
You can find all of our previous podcast episodes at the-view-from-here-dot-org
where you can also find more stories, affordable housing resources and information about our live community storytelling events.
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This is The View From Here.
From Capital Public Radio.
I'm Catherine Stifter.
Thanks for listening.