Monday, May 8, 2017
[Alameda County] Oakland takes on massive inspection program to get the lead out
Blog note: this article references a 2011 grand jury report.
OAKLAND — Faced with health problems blamed on poor housing conditions made worse by a tight market, the city is looking to improve how rentals are inspected and problems fixed.
Toddlers in seven Oakland ZIP codes, stretching through the flatlands from San Leandro to Emeryville, are testing for elevated blood lead levels at twice the rate, or more, of residents of Flint, Mich., where a cost-cutting decision brought lead-contaminated water into people’s homes.
The rate is also three times the national average of 2 percent, Larry Brooks of the Alameda County Healthy Homes Department said in an interview.
In Oakland, the situation is blamed on the lead-based paint used in homes built before 1978, when the paint was banned. In homes constructed before then, even fresh coats of paint, as they age and chip, re-expose that lead.
Oakland also has the highest rate of asthma rates in Alameda County, and West Oakland’s children younger than 5 are hospitalized for it twice as much as anyone else in the county. Asthma attacks can be triggered by mold or mildew in substandard housing.
And fire inspectors have been frustrated in their attempts to check up on buildings they were concerned about because Oakland’s inspection process is complaint-driven, West Oakland’s City Council member Lynette Gibson McElhaney said at a recent Community and Economic Development Committee meeting. Absent a complaint, it is difficult for inspectors to gain access to a property.
In the current tight Oakland housing market, tenants are reluctant to file complaints. Particularly for those who cannot afford higher rents, the risks of their landlord forcing them to move in retaliation for a complaint or to make repairs can seem worse than the risks of continuing to live in hazardous conditions, according to a staff report.
For years, since a 2011 grand jury report criticizing the city’s building inspection program, the city has been studying ways to improve its system. Per McElhaney’s request, the city administrator on April 25 presented a report on work so far.
Instead of its current complaint-driven system, the city is looking at how to implement a proactive rental inspection program, which cities such as San Jose, Berkeley and Hayward have.
Ethan Guy of the city administrator’s office laid out possible scenarios for a pilot Proactive Rental Inspection program.
More than half of Oakland residents are renters. The city has 95,402 rental properties, housing an estimated 290,000 tenants, according to the 2010 Census. The largest categories are apartment buildings of more than 10 units — 36,062 total units — and 23,564 houses.
In Oakland, the houses usually have the most problems, the report found, in some cases because the owners lack the money to address them.
To address tenants’ reluctance to report problems, the committee and public speakers suggested that a new inspection process include offering property owners help to make needed repairs in exchange for long-term agreements to keep their rentals affordably priced.
Lead exposure can cause significant impacts, including lower IQ rates, lower lifetime earnings and increases in violent behavior and crime rates. It is especially dangerous for young, developing bodies.
The biggest decision the City Council must make in choosing an inspection process is its scale and cost. The scenarios the committee was presented would in the first year test 10 percent of whichever category of rentals the council decides to target.
The categories the report suggested differ only in whether children in the targeted ZIP codes were tested for elevated blood lead levels at 6 or 7 percent and whether to focus on all rentals in the area or only those in buildings of nine units or fewer.
The committee asked Guy to return at a future meeting, tentatively June 17, with specifics on funding, coordination with the county on fixing the problem and ways to prevent evictions before the proposal can be presented to the full council.
Estimated costs ranged from $1,442,366 for inspecting only rental buildings of less than 10 units in ZIP codes where at least 7 percent of the children tested positive for elevated blood lead levels to $2,390,025 for a program targeting all rentals in an area that reached the 6 percent threshold.
The committee seemed to favor the more expensive option.
“We need to do anything and everything possible to protect our children,” said Noel Gallo, whose Fruitvale district is among the most affected.
May 5, 2017
East Bay Times
By Mark Hedin