DPH SRO Study: No Owners Penalized for Bedbugs

by Steve Clayton on September 27, 2016

A new study on SRO Hotels in San Francisco contends that residents are in poorer health than the general population.  The Public Health Commission has recommended training and data analysis in response.  A Beyond Chron analysis of the DPH data, however, reveals no evidence of an SRO landlord being sanctioned for health code violations.

DPH goes after SRO residents, but not owners.  

Five years’ worth of health inspection data, from 2012-2016, shows DPH sanctioning SRO residents, but not  owners.  This has been a long-standing complaint of SRO community groups.  SRO Collaboratives from Chinatown, Mission and the Central City have complained bitterly of health inspectors citing the tenant who filed the complaint.

DPH inspectors regularly cite residents, and send them to administrative hearings for punishment.  This practice was abandoned long ago by other city agencies.  Obviously, it discourages people from filing complaints for tenants seeking help from DPH inspectors.  From a legal standpoint, health code section 596(i) allows DPH to lien an owner’s property for outstanding violations with cost recovery (penalties).  But DPH has no way to collect a penalty against a tenant.

The DPH study, SRO Inspection Violations and Abatements over the last five years, shows bedbug violations at a few SRO hotels repeatedly throughout the five years.  According to the study, these hotel owners were not sent to hearings for penalties.  The study notes that “abatement conferences” were held with the residents complaining of the bedbugs, but does not explain exactly what an “abatement conference” is, or why the owner was not sent to a formal hearing.  There is no provision in the SF Health Code for “abatement conferences” in our reading of the code.  This looks like a typical bureaucratic device for avoiding a real sanction against the owner.  Real sanctions are outlined in SF Health Code section 599 (Collection).

Dead Bedbugs

The DPH study frequently notes “live bedbugs” vs. “dead bedbugs.”  This is presumably because Health Inspectors will not cite dead bedbugs, despite SRO residents’ complaints.  SRO Collaborative peer counselors from Chinatown, Mission and the Central City have long contended that Health Inspectors only cite violations involving live bedbugs.  Residents may have bites on their bodies and blood on their mattresses, and a Health Inspector  still won’t cite, unless he or she sees a live bedbug.

Vector Fee

The DPH study does show a few owners being sent to a Director’s Hearing, but not for code violations.  Five years ago, DPH instituted a new “Vector Fee” that all apartment and hotel owners had to pay.  The study shows that some owners were sent to a hearing because they didn’t pay the annual fee, but not for outstanding code violations.

Health Commission Recommendations

After hearing the DPH study, the Health Commission approved the staff’s set of recommendations.  None of the recommendations address the core problem with DPH inspections:  no penalties for owners with habitability violations.  The DPH staff put together a package of training, data and fluff designed to avoid the core issue here, which the Commission approved.

No Consulation with the Community

SRO Collaboratives work everyday with SRO residents.  They employ SRO residents because the SRO residents have a unique perspective that cannot be found elsewhere.  Yet, DPH failed to consult with these important groups, so it’s not surprising that their report fell far short of the true realities here.  These realities have, for many years, been exacerbated by the Department of Public Health, and now, the Health Commission has tried to permanently sweep them under the rug.

Like a dead bedbug.

Filed under: San Francisco News