SF Apartment Magazine - May 2006
In Conversation with Rosemary Bosque: Chief Housing Inspector
by Emily Landes & Sean Pritchard
Rosemary Bosque has been a San Francisco housing inspector since 1990 and spent the last five years as the Department of Building Inspection’s chief housing inspector, heading up the program that regulates code compliance in residential housing. Recently, San Francisco Apartment Magazine Assistant Editor Emily Landes and SFAA Government and Community Affairs Manager Sean Pritchard met with Bosque for an exclusive interview about code changes, common violations and, most importantly, why property owners shouldn’t fear a visit from DBI.
Q.How do you get the word out to people when there are new changes in the housing code?
A. We have the Code Enforcement Outreach Program where the tenant advocacy groups, the SFAA and other types of task forces that we sit on get information out when there are proposed new code changes. So, when there’s proposed legislation being sponsored, we then try to get the information out through CEOP in brochures and posters.
This type of program frees us up from dealing with minor issues so that we can put our resources toward more severe problems. I’ve got 20 inspectors, 4 senior inspectors and thousands of buildings to deal with. One thing that makes San Francisco unique is its wonderful architecture, but it’s also a cause for concern. It requires us to be very diligent in maintaining a uniform standard for all buildings so life, health and safety are maintained.
Q.What maintenance issues are important for apartment owners to be aware of?
A.One of the most crucial things we want property owners to know is the importance of periodic surveys of the conditions of the building. The exterior of the building and common areas should be surveyed monthly or quarterly, and storage areas and the units themselves should be surveyed as often as the owner can while also giving proper notification. You want to get in to see if you’ve got repair problems or moisture retention issues earlier rather than later, so you’ve got an opportunity to take care of that leak or mechanical ventilation issue before they become pervasive throughout the building and require more costly repair.
Q.Aside from moisture issues, what else should owners look for?
A.As utility costs are rising, tenants who control their own heat mechanism are not always turning it on and we’re not always getting circulation. Windows aren’t being opened, especially during the winter months, and if there’s any kind of leaking coming in we’re seeing more indications of mold and mildew starting to arise.
Q.Is mold a big concern for the department?
A.We have seen more people complaining about mold this past winter. With all the rain, residents have not opened their windows. Areas need to dry out. Another contribution to the mold problem is roof and plumbing leaks.
Q.What are the biggest year-round complaints?
A.Moisture retention is number one because it could come from lack of ventilation, housekeeping issues, leaking and improperly vented clothes dryers. The other types of things that we see are heating issues and dry rot in exterior stairs, balconies, landings and decks. Egress obstructions are also a problem. Owners need to make sure that the fire escapes don’t have any obstructions on them so that, in the case of an emergency, emergency vehicles and personnel will be able to get to the residents and remove them from the building. And it’s not just fire escapes; it’s public corridors or the second means out of an apartment where people often like to put storage. From that standpoint, we’re constantly trying to work with the residential tenants and the property owners to make sure that the danger is minimized and the obstructions are removed.
Q. What kind of information should owners convey to their tenants about improper storage and other possible threats to their safety?
A. They should look at common stairways that lead into and out of the building. Tenants can have storage by their back doors, but they don’t want to have it in front of their back doors. It’s okay in some cases to have storage or a potted plant if you have a deck; but if it’s really just a landing, everything should be removed because in the event of an emergency it encumbers people’s ability to exit the building. Another problem that we will typically see is in the parking areas, where combustible storage will start to build up. The problem with that is that, with the exception of smaller 2-4-unit buildings, you are not allowed to have any type of storage that can burn without having a proper fire sprinkler system. Rear stair areas are also an attractive place to put garbage receptacles or storage. You should have nothing under a stairway system that can burn, unless you have the proper sprinkler systems.
Also, you don’t want to allow a tenant to put a double-cylinder lock in either the front or rear door to the unit, which requires a key on both sides, because in the event of fire, smoke, or an emergency, you have to be able to open that door without any special key or knowledge.
Q. If DBI finds a number of violations, what happens next?
A. Typically, the property owner will get a notice of violation, which describes the violation, its location, what is required to cure the violation, the amount of time the owner has to complete the work, and when the reinspection will take place. Generally, the notices can give 24 hours—if it’s a severe violation like lack of heat—or up to 30 days. We usually don’t go beyond that, but if the violation requires more time, we’ll work with the property owner.
If, after issuing the notice, the inspector has done a reinspection and found that no progress has been made, then we have a couple of other tools at our disposal. One is to set the matter for an administrative hearing. The case is scheduled, and property owners come and give cause why they haven’t complied with the notice of violation. Hearing officers may issue an order of abatement against the property and record it on the land records if they find cause that the order is going to be needed to make the property owner comply. But, generally, we try to work with the property owners before that is necessary.
We can also issue a citation against the property owner that will impose fines per each violation. The citation will require that the property owner either pay that or show up in court and explain why the citation should not be issued. We also have the ability, after a certain amount of time, to refer the matter to the state franchise tax board. Any depreciation or amortization that the property owner has claimed as a result of it being rental property will be reviewed, and there are some situations where that deduction will be held back.
Q. You can also put a lien on the property, correct?
A.If the hearing officer imposes the order, it’s recorded on the property and the apartment owner doesn’t appeal that, then the department is entitled to assess reimbursement costs, starting from the beginning of that process. It’s done on an hourly basis, so we just tabulate how many hours it’s taken us to get compliance. If they then fail to pay that, we will go before the Board of Supervisors and ask that a special assessment lien be placed on the property. It will appear as part of the property tax bill for the property. The board has been very supportive of that because obviously tax dollars are being spent getting the owner to comply, which at that point hasn’t been timely.
Q. What’s the typical reimbursement at that point?
A.Generally, you’re looking at around $500 to $600 just for reimbursement costs. And then as far as the citations are concerned, each item that has a housing code section sited is around $271. So at that point, it depends on how many violations have been cited. That just gives you an estimate of what those costs can be, which a property owner can avoid if, after getting that notice of violation, they respond to it and work closely with the inspector who issued it. If there is a good-faith disagreement, you can always go up the chain of command all the way to me. Sometimes all it takes is some more explanation, and we’re happy to provide that.
Q.Is there a different protocol when dealing with a property owner who has already been cited numerous times?
A.We consider that on a case-by-case basis. Obviously, if somebody owns a lot of property, problems are going to come up. But if it’s a property owner who has outstanding violations and they have clearly indicated that they do not wish to comply, one of our last recourses is to make a presentation before our litigation committee and recommend that the situation be referred to the city attorney. They can give us some input about whether or not the case should be referred. Once it has been referred, then the city attorney has options, including filing a lawsuit against the property owner or getting an injunction against the property owner to compel them to comply. That’s a last resort because it requires significant resources, but we have been very successful with litigation. You may have heard about the recent settlement for a 600-unit building in Bayview-Hunter’s Point, which was well into the millions. That is one of the most significant cases that we’ve had.
Q.Are there any misperceptions that property owners have about the inspection program?
A. Well, I would hope not, but sometimes property owners are fearful when inspectors come out to the property; if they’ve not had exposure to the inspectors before, they might be somewhat concerned. But what they should realize is that the department has customer service and outreach as one of its main goals. That’s why we have a tremendous amount of information in writing that they can avail themselves of before we get out there. If they get a letter from us requesting to set an appointment for the mandated routine inspection and they have questions, they can call us. We’ve also made improvements to that request letter since I’ve been chief; it’s more specific so they have an idea of what we’re coming out to look at. Our job isn’t just to implement and enforce the code, but to educate, answer questions and forge a partnership with the property owner and occupants to ensure that we have safe, clean and functional housing.
Q. Where would you like to see the housing inspection program go in the future?
A. One of my main goals is to automate the inspection process. Right now the inspector takes notes, posts the building with a handwritten report and then has to come into the office and enter that report into the database, which then generates the notice of violation that is sent to the property owner. Ultimately, what I would like is to have some kind of handheld computer in the field, where they can go through the process more quickly and efficiently with all the information at their fingertips. The notice of violation would be generated based on that, so it would be much less time consuming. We have some automation now, but this would go a long way to getting us into as many buildings as we can and having a significant amount of detail. Within the next few years, I think you’ll see great improvements as far as that’s concerned. Once that’s accomplished, I think that would help the city greatly
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of SFAA or the San Francisco Apartment Magazine. For more information on DBI and the housing inspection program, check out www.sfgov.org/dbi. Copyright © 2006 by the San Francisco Apartment Magazine. All rights reserved