CEOP Brings Tenants and Landlords Together to Improve Housing

by Casey Mills on October 6, 2004

A crack in the window that lets freezing cold air in. A leak in the roof that ruins anything placed beneath it. A heater that hasn’t worked in years. And a tenant who feels absolutely helpless to make their landlord fix any of it.

Situations like these prompted the Department of Building Inspection (DBI) to create the Code Enforcement Outreach Program (CEOP), a multi-organizational coalition devoted to making sure property owners keep their tenants’ homes safe and habitable. Created eight years ago in response to San Francisco’s ineffectiveness at enforcing housing codes, the program has proven an essential resource for both tenants and landlords alike.

CEOP helps link tenants, housing rights non-profits, and the property-owner’s organization the San Francisco Apartment Association. This unlikely alliance works together as follows:

A tenant has a problem in their home, from a leaky faucet to a mice infestation. They call DBI or a non-profit to complain. A housing inspector investigates, and if the residence doesn’t meet code, they often contact the Apartment Association. The Association then contacts the tenant’s landlord, who usually makes the repairs. However, if they refuse to, the case gets sent back to DBI, which can then impose fines against the landlords and prosecute them for their failure to meet code.

James Sanbonmatsu, the program’s supervisor at DBI, helped start the program. He says the idea evolved from the recognition of a missing link in San Francisco’s code enforcement policy between technically proficient housing code enforcers and a more social outreach approach.

“Sometimes you have these sticky situations where tenants are fearful of filing complaints,” said Sanbonmatsu. “They need their hands held through the process.”

The program has been remarkably successful at keeping residences up to code, with estimates of a success rate ranging from eighty to ninety percent. For many involved, this high rate can be traced to CEOP’s cooperative nature, which emphasizes communication between landlords and tenants.

Greg Miller, Education Director at the Apartment Association, has been working with the CEOP program since its inception. He sees his role as providing a liaison between property owners and renters; two parties that he says often suffer from a complete break down in communication. Miller contacts landlords, explaining to them what they must do to reach code and the consequences if they do not.

“A lot of times, they would much rather hear it from me than have an inspector come by and explain it to them,” said Miller, who keeps his strategy for communicating with landlords simple. “I try to tell them it’s like having pride in your own property. I say, it’s yours, not theirs. I ask them, don’t you want to have good property?”

Stephanie Brandon represents the non-profit that works with Miller the most, The Housing Rights Committee, which recently worked with inspectors and tenants to gain a multi-million dollar settlement against America’s biggest owner of subsidized housing, AIMCO. A counselor and outreach coordinator, Brandon takes calls from tenants across the city complaining of housing problems, then faxes requests for repairs over to the Apartment Association. She says the two organizations have a strong working relationship, one that benefits the city a great deal.

“It really helps the community,” said Brandon. “There’s a lot of people in the out there whose units are really bad as far as habitability issues. We can help get repairs done fast that might never get done.”

For Miller, the allegiance is a rare one. “This is about the only instance where a property organization and tenant organization works together for a common goal,” said Miller. “The whole object is to maintain safe and habitable housing.”

The Housing Rights Committee worked with tenants and inspectors to build a lawsuit against AIMCO, the nation’s largest owner of subsidized housing.Two weeks ago, the City announced a multi-million dollar settlement in the case, which will also bring improved living conditions for hundreds of low-income tenants.

As high as the program’s success rate gets, their remains some property owners who refuse to make repairs. These landlords get referred to DBI, which then begins a process of both proving negligence and imposing penalties on the landlords.

Sanbonmatsu, who also works as a housing inspector, has been extensively involved in this process. In fact, his documentation of bad housing conditions recently resulted in his landing a spot in a major art show in Boston. Part of the process of prosecuting landlords is taking photos of tenants’ poor living conditions, and Sanbonmatsu’s photos of these conditions recently began showing at “Is This Our Country?,” an exhibit analyzing American society through art and poetry.

The photos reveal the awful conditions many tenants often endure before seeking help. Images include a chunk of roof that collapsed due to water, a shower with chunks of tile missing exposing pipes, and children’s toys next to a wall of peeling lead paint. For Sanbonmatsu, one of the best aspects of the CEOP program is the increased speed and ability with which DBI can punish landlords for failing to comply.

Before CEOP, landlords had 30 to 90 days to comply with requests for repairs – now, they have 7 to 30. The program also eliminated several cumbersome steps between getting landlords to a director’s hearing, where fees topping $1,000 a day get assigned to landlords for failure to comply and trial dates get set should the case involved severe habitability issues.

For Sanbonmatsu, DBI represents the last bastion keeping landlords from refusing to make repairs. The organization represents the only group that will regularly penalize landlords for their behavior, a job that’s not always easy.

“Some people are really rude,” said Sanbonmatsu. “They’re not afraid of calling you up at eight in morning and just screaming at you. They take out all your frustrations on you. And there are a lot of landlords who are used to getting their way. They don’t like it when someone tells them what to do.” However, he adds, “I think most landlords to try to be responsible. We don’t have a problem with most of them.”

The main obstacle CEOP currently faces involves making sure tenants know about its existence. All CEOP-affiliated organizations participate in extensive, multi-lingual outreach programs, including community workshops, leaflets, media appearances, and more.

Still, many tenants remain unaware of the program, a problem that concerns Brandon. While many would hope for less work, she hopes for more. The reason, she says, is simple.

“I love my job. I love it because I feel like I’m really helping people.”

Filed under: Bay Area / California