City trying to fine-tune rental inspections

It’s been about two years since the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) started inspecting rental housing under its Rental Registration and Inspection Ordinance. Earlier this week they brought a proposal to the Council’s Planning, Land Use and Zoning Committee for several changes in order to fix problems they have encountered over the 5,000 inspections they have completed to-date.

Here are some of the things they are looking to change:

  • Right now, private inspectors perform about 60% of rental inspections, with SDCI’s own staff handling the other 40%. But SDCI currently doesn’t receive a copy of the inspection report when a property fails an inspection performed by a private inspector. That’s a huge hole in their recordkeeping and their ability to identify chronic problem properties (and landlords). So they propose to require private inspectors to file inspection reports with SDCI.
  • When inspecting multi-unit properties, the current rules specify that at least two units must be inspected if the building has 20 units or fewer, but if it has more than 20 units at least 15% must be inspected. Under their proposed new rule, it’s “at least 20%” across the board; fewer units for smaller properties, and more units for larger ones.
  • Currently landlords are notified 60 days in advance that their property is scheduled for an inspection, and that notice includes a list of which units have been randomly selected for inspecting. Unfortunately, tenants have reported that landlords use the 60 days to bring only those units up to code and ignore the rest. SDCI is looking at changing their process so that the notification letter still goes out 60 days in advance, but the list of randomly-selected units will be sent out with much less notice: possibly only 1 or 2 weeks. SDCI is still trying to “thread the needle” to find the right balance between giving landlords and tenants time to arrange for entrance into a unit to conduct the inspection, while not giving landlords sufficient advance notice to allow them to game the system.
  • Several updates to the Housing and Building Maintenance Code (HBMC), which hasn’t seen a major revision since 1991, are proposed. Many of the items are corrections to come into alignment with state law, including lead paint mitigation, carbon monoxide detectors, smoke alarms in bedrooms, stronger deadbolts on exterior doors, latching ground floor windows, and a long list of other minor updates.

Many of the changes to the HBMC trickle down into the standardized checklist that SDCI requires inspectors to use for rental inspections. That checklist has a rather bureaucratic process required for updating it, involving stakeholder review, the SDCI Director issuing a new rule, a 30-day public comment period, and Council feedback. Assuming the Council approves the proposed changes to the RRIO and HMBC ordinances, it will take several weeks for the updated checklist to run that gauntlet. In the mean time, SDCI is also looking at updating some of its other internal processes, such as guidelines for when a failed inspection in one unit triggers an inspector’s discretion to require additional inspections in other units in that building. That wouldn’t happen for a disabled smoke detector (which alone is the cause of 30% of failed inspections) but might happen if an inspector noticed a rat infestation or a leaky roof, both of which suggest that nearby units share the problem. SDCI also needs to update its IT systems to accommodate the changes, and provide education and outreach to private inspectors, landlords and tenants.

SDCI developed its list of proposed changes through a series of six meetings it held last year with a variety of stakeholders, including the Tenants Union and the Rental Housing Association.

This week’s committee briefing was the Council’s introduction to the issues; they will take up the legislation in earnest at the next meeting on June 20th.