Living conditions spur call for legal action

The city department that investigates building code violations is finding itself under fire by one city legislator who says it is failing to refer serious offenders to the City Attorney’s Office.

Supervisor Tom Ammiano introduced an official letter of inquiry to the Department of Building Inspection, criticizing the department for failing to properly act on the “months and months” of complaints regarding a two-unit Mission neighborhood building at 3224-3226 26th St.

According to Ammiano’s letter, a city inspection on Feb. 22 revealed people “living in illegally built attic units, people living in subdivided apartments and people living in basement rooms which were not fit for human habitation.”

Additionally, the department has issued numerous violation notices in the last year, for offenses including refuse accumulation, bars obstructing emergency egress, no smoke detectors, no heat, no hot water, rodents, leaking ceilings and illegal construction, according to the supervisor’s letter.

The case should have been referred to the City Attorney’s Office “ages ago for litigation,” Ammiano said.

The City Attorney’s Office is able to sue property owners, increasing penalties and increasing the pressure to bring buildings into compliance.

A city attorney spokeswoman said that over the past year, the office has seen a “drastic decline in the number of code enforcement referrals” coming from DBI.

“At the same time we’re starting to see an increase in complaints from citizens who are saying the code enforcement is languishing in the administrative process.” spokeswoman Alexis Thompson said. “The possibility that the system has deteriorated concerns us.”

The department came under new leadership in February 2007 with the hiring of Isam Hasenin, a former chief building official with the city of San Diego. In the years prior to his arrival, the department has struggled and faced accusations of corruption.

DBI spokesman William Strawn defended the department’s code enforcement and said all appropriate cases were being referred to the City Attorney’s Office.

“If we believe a case needs city attorney litigation we will certainly send it there.” Strawn said. “I don’t know why the supervisor feels that way.”

In December, DBI issued an emergency order when the building owner ceased providing water and electric at the building. For January and February, the city footed the $995.79 Pacific Gas & Electric bill and the $942.08 water bill.

Strawn said The City would likely recoup the expense through a lien on the property and that progress is being made in bringing the building into compliance.

When The Examiner called the number listed on DBI documents for the building’s owner, David Wong, a man answered, refused to identify himself, and said to call his attorney, providing a phone number that was disconnected.

jsabatini@examiner.com

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