Worn carpets, low-amp juice, and clogged drains are familiar to tenants living in older buildings. The law requires nothing better, only that premises be “fit for the occupation of human beings.” But who checks? Our complaint-driven enforcement system makes every tenant a non-deputized housing inspector. We need a systematic housing inspection program and we need it now.
The state has established some bare-minimum requirements for a dwelling: it should be safe, sanitary, weatherproofed and free from visible mold, vermin and insect infestation. And of course provide basic services like heat and hot water. Along with a locking mailbox these requirements comprise nearly everything required for what the state calls a ‘tenantable’ dwelling.
Every city has an interest to ensure that every dwelling is at least tenantable. That’s why we have state and local codes and code enforcement officials. We go into more detail about what the law requires of the landlord in our explainer, Habitability: What Does It Mean?
Tenantable Premises: The Tenant’s Responsibility
Despite the public interest in properly maintained housing, Beverly Hills has long made the tenant the defacto housing inspector. That is because we have a ‘complaint-driven system: only when a complaint comes in does the city undertake an investigation. There is no systematic inspections of rental housing at all. A property could go decades without an inspection (except for fire hazards). Read more about code enforcement in our primer.
The complaint-driven code enforcement process depends entirely on the tenant’s complaint. Yet that tenant faces a conundrum: report the problem to the city and then worry about landlord retaliation; or live with it? Retaliation can include harassment but also less overt forms like reduced maintenance and surly relations.
The rule of thumb is to first exhaust all opportunities with the landlord to address an issue. Document all exchanges in writing. Then reach out to the city’s Rent Stabilization Program office with an inquiry. Find the office at (310) 285–1031 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Finally the problem may be addressed with a formal complaint (read How to File A Code Complaint).
A tenant is in this position because Beverly Hills has no systematic inspection program that would put a trained housing inspector in the field to identify violations.
Why We Need Systematic Housing Inspections
The great advantage of a systematic housing inspection program is that it relieves tenants of the duty to report their landlord for suspected code violations. Tenants are not trained; we shouldn’t have the responsibility. A housing inspection conducted on a schedule would relieve a tenant of suspicion too.
Second, systematic inspection puts the responsibility of code enforcement squarely back on City Hall where it belongs. Tenants never should have been informally deputized to report code violations — that is a professional’s job! Systematic inspection also sends the right message: Beverly Hills cares about our residents who rent.
Third, proactive inspections are necessary if the city will embrace a higher habitability standard, something better than the state ‘tenantable’ requirements. We want our housing to be more comfortable than simply “fit for occupation by human beings.” Systematic inspections will ensure that all apartments at least meet a higher standard. Voluntary inspections would not cut it!
Follow the City of Los Angeles Lead
City of Los Angeles sends a trained housing inspector to visit every apartment in a property (of two or more units) that falls under the city’s rent stabilization program. The Systematic Rental Housing Inspection Program ensures that each dwelling is inspected at least once every four years. Because it is a city-initiated inspection, the city is also aggressive about forcing the landlord to make any needed repair.
The cost of the program is passed on to tenants through a $3.61 charge each month. That is less than a buck per week to ensure that housing meets the state standards. For that money each household gets a visit from a professional housing inspector who thoroughly checks their apartment for any evidence of substandard conditions. Inspectors will also respond to reported violations too.
The program is regarded as a success by both tenants and landlords, who don’t fear a surprise inspection because a Notice of Inspection is mailed to the landlord 30 days prior. The goal is not to catch a violator as much as to encourage a landlord’s compliance with the code. (For more read the program FAQ.)
Past Time for a Beverly Hills Systematic Inspection Program!
Thirteen years ago, city building officials proposed a proactive inspection program for rental housing. The objective was to avoid the problems that had long festered: substandard conditions not reported and landlord harassment of tenants who did complain.
However the inspection program proposal was opposed by landlord associations and it never had a chance. (No tenant spoke up to support it.)
Ten years later in 2016, the Human Relations Commission considered a systematic inspection program as part of a slate of recommendations for changes to the rent stabilization ordinance. The commission was about to vote on it when city staff slipped in another option for consideration: a lower-cost voluntary self-certification. Under that option, a landlord would only have to sign his name to a checklist. Staff pressure then prompted the commission to agree to add it as an option.
But the voluntary self-certification option in lieu of an actual inspection program never made it to City Council for consideration. Instead Council undertook a sweeping reform of the rent stabilization ordinance in January 2017 that brought the changes we have today.
The prospect for a real housing inspection program looks better now than ever before. The authors of that thirteen year old inspection proposal are our current city manager and assistant city manager. Our Deputy Director of Rent Stabilization, Helen Morales, was hired from City of Los Angeles where, at the Department of Housing and Community Development, she had housing inspection responsibilities.
We are closer than ever to a real inspection program and that is good news. Apartments in Beverly Hills should be more than “fit for occupancy by human beings.” We want to live comfortably and we’re paying for that privilege with relatively high rents. And practically speaking we want to ensure that our rental properties are properly maintained. The rental stock is a renewable resource, if properly maintained, that will provide relatively-affordable housing indefinitely. All it takes is a local habitability standard and a systematic inspection program!