First-of-its-kind report details code enforcement cases in SF homes

San Francisco has been in the national spotlight in recent years for its sky-high cost of living and torrid tales of evictions.

But a lesser-known housing element is setting a national standard for The City as well.

For those who still live in The City, a plethora of building code violations ranging from lack of hot water and heat to rodents and mold continue to plague residents, especially in rented homes.

San Francisco, however, actually saw such violations followed up by city officials more than most major cities in the U.S., according the Department of Building Inspection’s first-ever citywide report on housing code violations in San Francisco, which was released to the San Francisco Examiner last week.

“I’ve always wanted [to do] this,” said James Sanbonmatsu, a senior housing inspector with DBI who authored the report. “We cover an enormous amount of ground and we see a lot of problems and do our best to get them all fixed, so it’s a lot more than any of us realize.”

The report covers fiscal years 2012-13, 2013-14 and 2014-15, and breaks down the various code violations found in San Francisco’s homes, as well as steps taken in San Francisco and other major U.S. cities to ensure such violations are corrected.

In those three years, there were 36,466 housing code violations, which means housing inspectors confirmed the complaint in their inspections and cited the owner for those violations.

Of those violations, 88 percent were corrected by the landlord, the report found.

Sanbonmatsu credits such a high correction of violations with the long list of follow-up steps the department takes to ensure the issues are addressed.

For instance, out of some two dozen U.S. cities named in the report including Austin, Chicago, New York City, San Diego and Seattle, San Francisco is the only municipality that performs code enforcement outreach with tenant and landlord groups.

San Francisco is also one of the only cities that tracks its complaints online, holds hearings for noncompliance and issues liens to collect outstanding penalties, according to the report.

“Due to demand by [the] citizenry of San Francisco, we take more follow-up steps than any city that we know of in the United States to make sure that the housing code is enforced and tenants have livable standards in their apartments,” Sanbonmatsu said.

In one of the more egregious examples of building code violations highlighted in the report, notices of violation were issued for a 10-unit building at 2882 23rd St. that included deteriorated rear stairs, an inoperable oven, rodents, mold, broken door locks, torn carpets and broken linoleum. The landlord in the case addressed each violation within four to six weeks.

“Most landlords are responsible and they do it right away; they don’t want to have these things hanging over their head,” Sanbonmatsu said. “But a few people learn the hard way.”

One such example is Yick On Wong, who owns 505 26th Ave. and 1254-56 Leavenworth St. Wong was sued by the City Attorney’s Office in May for allegedly letting his rental properties in the Richmond District and Nob Hill fall into such a state of disrepair that rodents thrived, feces accumulated and doors and windows were left broken.

The City Attorney’s Office filed the lawsuit after Wong reportedly ignored numerous building code violations and abatement orders issued by the Department of Building Inspection over the years, despite continuing to collect rent from tenants.

Wong’s properties fall within the 12 percent of violations that weren’t corrected within the three-year period covered in the report, which also counts cases in which the landlord made repairs but didn’t pay the fine and cases in which the landlord could not access the area where a violation was reported.

Tommi Avicolli Mecca of the Housing Rights Committee said he was surprised such a high percent of notices of violation were corrected by landlords in the past three years, especially given the heated housing climate in The City.

“Sometimes, if a landlord is trying to get tenants out, they may neglect repairs as a way to drive people out,” Avicolli Mecca said. “That’s been one thing we’ve seen in the housing crisis.”

He added, “It’s good to see that they are addressing concerns … It’s what The City should be doing. The City does have a responsibility to make sure people are living in habitable environments.”

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