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Council delays housing safety ordinance

By John Geluardi Daily Planet staff
Thursday June 14, 2001

The City Council voted Tuesday to send a housing safety ordinance – called for after the deaths of three people in accidental fires over the last year – back to a subcommittee for fine tuning. 

The council requested the ordinance after the November deaths of UC Berkeley student Azalea Jusay, 21 and her parents, Francisco and Florita, both 46, in a house fire at 2160 Martin Luther King Jr. Way. The following January, UC student Brad Evans, 23, died in a house fire in Oakland.  

The council approved the motion to send the ordinance, known as the Rental Housing Safety Program, back to a Housing Advisory Subcommittee by a vote of 5-4 with Vice Mayor Maudelle Shirek and councilmembers Dona Spring, Kriss Worthington and Linda Maio voting in opposition. 

The council requested the subcommittee work with landlords and tenants to clarify landlord fees that will pay for the program, finalize a uniform check list that will be used as a guide during property inspections and clarify issues related to the scope of inspections. 

Councilmember Polly Armstrong included in the motion that the fine tuning be expedited. 

“If we send this back it should be with the clear understanding that it comes back in one month with the results of the continuing conversations so we can have it in place by the fall,” she said 

Spring, who called on the council to approve the ordinance first, then fine tune the details later, said the ordinance had already been worked on long enough.  

“We’ve been working on this proposal for a long time,” she said on Wednesday. “It was nearly a year ago we had those deaths on Martin Luther King Jr. Way and staff has been working very hard to get this ordinance in place in a timely manner.” 

Interim Housing Director Stephen Barton said the Housing Advisory Subcommittee has worked successfully in recent months with landlords, tenants and the university to develop the ordinance. 

The proposed ordinance, which is estimated to cost $450,000 the first year, would create a two-pronged inspection process that would require landlords to inspect their rental units once a year using a uniform check list. Landlords would be looking for fire dangers such as faulty smoke detectors, blocked windows and doorways and combustible materials stored near heaters. 

The city would carry out another inspection while the units become vacant. If safety violations were discovered the city would charge the landlord a fee for re-inspection, which would be between $100 and $200. 

About 30 landlords attended the meeting to complain that the ordinance is not ready to be approved and still needs to have the rough edges worked out. 

Berkeley Property Owners Association member Michael Wilson said there is consensus among landlords and tenants that a housing safety ordinance is needed, but the question remains if this ordinance fair and effective. 

“There is not an argument with the goal of safer housing,” Wilson said. “The question is how to create a law that suits both landlords and tenants.” 

Wilson said landlords would like to see the fee structure changed to give well-meaning owners an opportunity to repair safety violations before being charged the re-inspection fee. He also said there’s concern about the scope of the city inspections. 

“If the city is charging $100 to $200 for re-inspection, there might be a built-in incentive to find violations that are not directly a threat to heath and safety,” he said.  

UC Berkeley student and HAC Commissioner Andy Katz said the ordinance was ready to be approved and the one-month delay will likely mean that a large amount of vacancies won’t be inspected before students return for classes in August. 

“The ordinance was ready to go,” Katz said. “We could have made changes to the fee structure after it was approved. Now the goal of this program, to get more inspections and create a safer environment for students and Berkeley renters, has been delayed by the City Council.” 

The ordinance is scheduled to be back on the council’s agenda on July 24.