Rudy’s Errant Mission

by Randy Shaw on April 19, 2004

Rudy Nothenberg testifies before the Building Commission today, one month after Mayor Newsom appointed him “special monitor: to investigate the Department of Building Inspection. While Newsom’s action was praised by the San Francisco Chronicle, his choice of Nothenberg raises questions. Nothenberg headed the Building Department from 1987-94, and his poor performance led voters to pass Prop G in November 1994, which ousted Nothenberg and transferred power to a seven-member public Commission. Now he’s back, and has a score to settle.

Prior to the 1994 initiative creating the Building Commission, Rudy Nothenberg had ultimate control over city housing code enforcement, permit processing, and building inspections. Here are some highlights of his tenure:

. The St. Peters Housing Committee sued Nothenberg for discriminating against Latino families in housing code enforcement, and there was not a single Spanish-speaking housing inspector. Tenants throughout the Mission District lacked heat, and even when landlords were cited, there was no follow-up. Nothenberg’s underlings refused to fine, prosecute, or in any way punish the city’s worst landlords

. Disability rights advocates sued Nothenberg for failing to enforce state and federal access laws.
. Tenant groups sued Nothenberg for failing to follow the city’s own code enforcement procedures and instead imposing extensive delays.
. Nearly all cases referred to the city attorney by Nothenberg’s code enforcement division were for closing down illegal in- law apartments-virtually no suits were brought against slumlords
. Top priority was given to downtown commercial renovations and routine inspections of buildings in the Sunset, Pacific Heights and Richmond. Meanwhile, the buildings with the most habitability problems— SRO’s and apartments in the Tenderloin, South of Market and Mission District— went uninspected
. Nothenberg violated the City Charter by approving the appointment of over a dozen non-residents to policy making committees

During his entire tenure, Nothenberg consistently refused to meet with tenant groups to address their concerns. When tenants sought to force a meeting by engaging in a mass protest outside his City Hall office, his aides locked the door and refused to respond to media inquiries.

After Prop G replaced Nothenberg’s control with a seven-member Commission in 1995, San Francisco adopted the most stringent and effective housing code enforcement procedures in the nation. Landlords who fail to make repairs in the time specificied in the citation are fined, and liens are placed on the building if the fine is not paid.

It has become customary for the city attorneys office to announce large settlements and verdicts against law-breaking landlords. But prior to 1995, nearly all of the city attorney’s code enforcement cases involved illegal units. Nothenberg’s appointees did not want to fund the city attorney to sue owners of rundown Mission District or Tenderloin buildings .

Despite a record of success in code enforcement that has left housing groups around the country marvelling over our system, the San Francisco Chronicle has never written a single story about DBI’s success. In fact, the daily has ignored all of DBI’s accomplishments since 1995 and instead written over 25 negative stories about the Department.

The reason that the Chronicle has such hostility to the city’s most financially successful and efficient department goes back to the 1994 election, when over 60,000 voters put Prop G on the ballot. The heart of Prop G was replacing Nothenberg’s autocratic control of the building and housing bureau with a public, democratically-appointed Commission.

As the author of Prop G, I expected the daily media to endorse the measure. Both the Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner (whose Hearst owners now own the Chronicle) had provided strong coverage of the city’s failure to enforce heat, health and safety laws in low-income housing. I assumed they would be thrilled that control was being wrested from those responsible for such abuses.

But what I did not know until the campaign was underway was that the two daily papers and their downtown allies, SPUR and the Chamber of Commerce, had a special arrangement with Nothenberg. This arrangement gave top priority and the highest level of service and resources to expediting improvements in downtown office buildings

Since Prop G’s backers promised to redirect resources to housing code enforcement and to processing residential permits, the measure jeopardized the cozy relationship between the Building Department and downtown commercial interests. This led the Chronicle, Examiner, Nothenberg, SPUR and the Chamber to wage an all-out disinformation campaign to defeat Prop G.

Fortunately for the city’s residents, a newspaper strike in the month before the November 1994 election mitigated the impact of the two papers anti-Prop G editorials. But the Hearst Corporation remains bitter about losing its special access to the Building Department. Newsom’s appointment of Nothenberg to investigate DBI gives the deposed leader and the Chronicle the opportunity to settle old scores.

Now retired and living in Sonoma, Notheberg has little capacity to investigate a major city department. He was asked to attend today’s Building Commission hearing to explain what he is planning to do. Many suspect he will simply read reports on DBI from the Controller’s office and civil grand jury, neither of which provided any facts to back up the Chronicle’s repeated claims that permit expediters “move to the front of the line” at DBI.

When the Bay Area’s leading newspaper repeatedly describes DBI as “problem plagued,” and regularly speaks in dark, conspiratorial tones about the Department, readers naturally assume that there must be something to the story. Although the Board of Supervisors held two public hearings within the past year on the claim of favortism at DBI, the Chronicle did not cover either hearing. It thus saved itself from reporting that there was no testimony at either hearing that confirmed the Chronicle’s allegations, and significant testimony to the contrary..

Longtime DBI Commissioner Bobbie Sue Hood noted last month that “if people were stepping ahead in line of others to get permits, you can be sure that not only would a fight possibly break out, but everyone would hear about it.” Commissioner Fillion also observed the near impossibility of disproving unspecified allegations of favoritism.

But proving favoritism is actually quite easy. It would be revealed by the public permit records of comparable buildings. That’s why the Chronicle’s continued claims of favoritism without providing such evidence-and a reporter spent a solid year looking for it-is so irresponsible.

In the immortal words of he great movie Director John Ford, “if you have a choice between printing the facts or printing the myth, print the myth.” The Chronicle is wedded to the myth of corruption at DBI, and will not let facts get in the way. The paper likely has already written its front-page headline—“Monitor confirms favoritism at DBI”-even before Nothenberg begins his investigation.

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