Modesto is facing resistance from property owners and managers as it considers whether it should inspect apartments and other rental housing to ensure they meet basic health and safety standards, including having working plumbing and being free of vermin.
But an official with Faith in the Valley — a community organizer that works with disadvantaged communities — said a rental inspection program ensures all renters live in safe and decent housing.
Other California cities have established rental housing inspection programs, including Fresno, Sacramento, Stockton and Santa Cruz.
Modesto's chief building official, Tom Trimberger, laid out a proposal for the program at Monday's City Council Safety and Communities Committee meeting at Tenth Street Place. The proposal includes charging what the city calls a modest fee to fund the program. Trimberger said Stockton and Santa Cruz each charge $65 and Sacramento $28.
Modesto could inspect properties every two or three years, and owners in good standing could fill out paperwork that their properties meet the standards and avoid subsequent inspections. And only a percentage of the units in apartment buildings could be inspected.
Trimberger said the inspection program would focus on the basics, such as ensuring toilets and heaters work. City officials stressed the proposal is in its early stages, and the city will do more work and outreach.
The committee directed staff to do that, including working with the local rental housing community and Faith in the Valley, and report back. No decisions have been made, and it would take a City Council vote to start the program.
The meeting was packed with a couple of dozen people from the rental housing community; several spoke against the proposal. Speakers said they inspect and maintain their properties, the fees will be much higher than the city suggests and that will hurt smaller property owners and tenants, and this is an example of governmental overreach.
They said some rental properties already are inspected through other programs and cited the Section 8 housing program as an example. (Modesto would not inspect properties already subject to inspections.) They said while slumlords should be held accountable, this was not the way to do it.
But Andy Levine — interim county director for Faith in the Valley Stanislaus — said in an interview that the same objections were raised in Fresno. (Faith in the Valley operates in five San Joaquin Valley counties.) Levine said his organization worked with Fresno and the rental housing industry there to create Fresno's program.
He said Modesto will get a full understanding of its rental housing inventory if it establishes an inspection program. That will let it focus on those properties that are a problem. Low-income tenants may be reluctant to complain to their landlord or the city because they fear retaliation from their landlords. Modesto doesn't investigate unless it receives a complaint.
And some renters feel trapped because a tight rental market with steep increases makes it difficult to find other housing.
Levine and Faith in the Valley community organizer Kim Martinez took The Bee on a tour of several apartments in a large west Modesto complex this week. Faith in the Valley is working with the families living in the apartments. The tenants speak Spanish and Martinez translated.
Family members asked that their names not be used and the complex identified because they said they fear retaliation. Family members all said they have lived in the complex for several years. The apartments were neat and clean. Rents are roughly $700 to $800 a month and have increased by about $100 in the past year or so.
The tenants pointed to such problems as black mold on bathroom ceilings, bathroom walls with extensive water damage and a broken sink and leaky bathtub. Some said they had to buy their own appliances because the ones provided by the complex did not work. Two tenants said they bought traps to catch rats.
The tenants claimed repairs have not been made or the repairs were inadequate.
Modesto is considering a rental inspection program after last year's crisis at 624 Ninth St., a dilapidated two-story building of 28 studio apartments that rented for about $585 a month including utilities.
The building was in deplorable condition, which included mold, rats and cockroaches, rotting bathroom floors, holes in walls and floors, and faulty plumbing and electrical. But it provided affordable housing for poor people who did not have better options.
The city condemned the building after the owner failed to make repairs. The tenants were forced to leave. The building caught fire in October after the city had boarded it up. The city could not determine the cause of the fire, and what was left of the building was razed.
A city report does not find fault with the city for not identifying the problems at the apartment building sooner, despite frequent visits from police officers and fire officials conducing safety inspections. The report also detailed several code enforcement actions at the property over several years and assumes workers from child protective services, adult protective services and other agencies visited the building.
But Trimberger said the code enforcement cases were isolated incidents and not an indication of systemic problems. He added the city does not have a way to track complaints by property, and police officers and social workers who visited the apartment complex are not trained in identifying health and safety problems.