Public Comment

Improving Housing Safety in the city of Berkeley

Dean Metzger, Chair on behalf of Berkeley Neighborhoods Council
Tuesday June 23, 2015 - 11:52:00 PM

The Berkeley Neighborhoods Council (BNC), like people everywhere, is deeply concerned about the balcony collapse that occurred on June 16 at 2020 Kittredge Street. Our City must immediately address the problems that have been revealed regarding the safety of balconies, even in fairly recently constructed buildings, whether rental or for sale. Prevention of the re-occurrence of such problems must become a priority for Berkeley. It is an act of respect toward those who lost their lives and their grieving families. 

We suggest, therefore, that the City immediately inspect all cantilevered balconies, starting with those that are of wood construction and excluding those meant as decoration only. The owners of such buildings should receive written notice that an inspection is to take place and requiring them to notify tenants of the inspection and that tenants are not to use the balcony associated with their unit until it has been cleared. 

We also suggest that you immediately suspend approval of cantilevered balconies until such time as the investigation regarding the collapse at 2020 Kittredge has been concluded and any necessary changes, possibly including increased local building requirements to the Uniform Building Code, have been enacted. For example, we understand from newspaper reports that a specific inspection for waterproofing is required for roofing, but not for balconies. We are not code experts, but if this is correct, it seems logical that Berkeley quickly enact such a requirement, or others that may be appropriate. 

We must not, however forget that the collapse of that balcony revealed another problem that you must also address immediately - that of the appalling conditions found at least in some number of Berkeley's rental units. There is a suspicion that these conditions are more likely to occur in those units targeted for occupancy by students. We do not have any data on which to confirm the extent of this problem, either the number or types of units. Stories have been told about this problem for years, and they have been increasing in the past few years as the University has 

increased its enrollment, rents have increased and more and more students have occupied individual rental units in groups.  

You certainly are aware of the problems of noisy and drunken parties and of the issues concerning Mini-Dorm rentals. Certainly you know that rental units in multifamily buildings are also subject to rental by several students. Members of  

BNC has non-student friends who initially rented units in the Library Gardens Building at 2020 Kittredge when the building first opened. At that time, people understood that the targeted renters for this building were empty-nesters or others who just wanted to live in a downtown environment. Many remember when the building was proposed, it was to be condominiums. People moved in, and quickly moved out, as students with quite different schedules and lifestyles moved began to move in, several to an apartment, and maintenance became non-existent. The photos that tenants circulated after the balcony collapse showed appalling conditions - trash in hallways and stairways, urine on the carpets, and damaged locks and doorways. We understand that at least one newspaper printed a tenant complaint filed not long before the balcony collapse stating that the floor of one apartment had dry rot. 

BNC is aware that the City has a Rental Housing Safety Program (RHSP) that applies to all rental units in the City. The stated purpose of the RHSP is to "help prevent deaths, injuries, and ill health from unsafe housing conditions through collaboration between the City, rental property owners, tenants and the community."  

The RHSP already 

  • Applies to owners of residential rental property - even if only one or two units are involved, and to owners of boarding houses or residential hotels with five more rooms.
  • Assesses a $26 fee for each unit to the owners of rental units, and $13 for each room in boarding houses or residential hotels.
  • Requires owners to inspect rental units and certify annually by July 1 of each year that their units meet housing safety standards on a checklist form prepared by the City.
  • Requires that owners provide a copy of the checklist to the tenants.
  • Asks tenants to notify Code Enforcement if a checklist form is not received.
  • Requires owners to notify Code Enforcement if the checklist cannot be completed and the reason why.
  • Fines owners who don't comply. Administrative Citations include a monetary fine of not less than $200 per unit or room, followed by additional fines for continued failure to comply.

BNC doesn't know the effectiveness of this program, but strongly feels that an evaluation should be done and the program appropriately strengthened.  

To begin this process, BNC suggests that the City Council immediately request information from the City Manager as to the status of rental units in the Rental Housing Safety Program (RHSP).  

  • The total number of rental units in the city of Berkeley.
  • How many of these rental units are in compliance and how many are NOT in compliance with the RHSP, i.e. submitted an annual check-list form in each of the past 3 years.
  • How many of these rental units that are not in compliance with the RHSP have been contacted, fined and paid their fine and the problems fixed.
  • How many of these rental units that are not in compliance with the RHSP have been contacted, fined and NOT paid their fine?
BNC additionally requests that the City consider devising: 

  1. A point system for landlords whose properties have not been in compliance with the RHSP based on the following criteria:
  • The length of non-compliance.
  • Number of times having received a notice of non-compliance and/or history of fines, and ignoring either the notices or not paying the fines.
  • Severity of the problems found using a methodology of assigning point values to the items on the City's General Safety Checklist, and simply adding up those items to a predetermined level that would indicate that the conditions within a particular unit or the building as a whole were found to have a high safety risk level.
  1. A program where compliance with the RHSP program acts as an incentive by assessing lower rates for the those units and buildings that are in compliance, and steadily higher rates for those units and buildings found to be high safety risk factors.
  • List buildings with units not in compliance, by address, along with descriptions of the problems encountered in a quarterly report to the Council.
  • Publish this list on the City's web site, so that those seeking rental housing can consider avoiding signing leases with the owners of such housing, or that owners can avoid contracting with property management firms that have poor records in this regard.
  1. A "hot line" system where tenants can anonymously contact the City regarding conditions either in their unit or in the building as a whole without fear of retaliation. The complaint would generate inspection by the City to confirm and quarterly reports of results would be made to the Council. Currently tenants can report violations, but many do not out of fear of retaliation.
  1. A computerized system that will track the annual certification done by the owner.
BNC offers these as suggestions, and is urging the Council to undertake action immediately for the sake of the grieving families who at least need the small comfort that the city of Berkeley is acting to prevent other families from suffering the same kind of loss, that the City is seeking the safety, health and well-being of our current tenants, and for re-assurance to all, that Berkeley is a caring city.