Slumlords should be punished

It was an interesting coincidence of timing, coming only one week after Supervisor Tom Ammiano condemned the San Francisco Department of Building Inspection for failure to promptly seek City Attorney’s Office lawsuits against derelict property owners. Last week, City Attorney Dennis Herrera announced that two Mission district landlords were hit with a combined $675,000 in penalties for failing to rectify “innumerable” DBI violations.

These lawsuits were filed in 2006, but at least the DBI referred the cases to the city attorney in a timely manner. So now the courts can finally order the building owners to make their units decently habitable by fixing grievous code violations and desisting from illegal practices. This is a welcome victory both for the buildings’ long-suffering tenants and for San Francisco taxpayers, sending a strong message to violators who exploit and endanger city renters by flouting the building code.

There seems a striking contrast between DBI’s previous willingness to send serious cases to the city attorney and its present inaction. A city attorney representative said the office experienced “a drastic decline in the number of code enforcement referrals” simultaneously with “an increase in complaints from citizens who are saying the code enforcement is languishing.”

The DBI came under new leadership in February 2007 with the hiring of Isam Hasenin, who arrived with a good track record as chief building officer of San Diego and vice chairman of the California Building Standards Commission. Hasenin was supposed to clean up what has long been one of San Francisco’s most troubled agencies — a department that was investigated by the FBI and blasted by a grand jury.

The Examiner praised Hasenin last June when he brought the Planning Commission a comprehensive plan to rehabilitate the DBI. But now we wonder what is going wrong with the department’s all-important code-enforcement function.

A Building Inspection representative countered the code enforcement complaints by claiming there was no problem because all appropriate cases were still referred to the City Attorney’s Office — after the internal DBI process is fully exhausted and all progress grinds to a halt. To us, that appears a particularly weak line of excuses.

Does San Francisco really want residents living in conditions unfit for human habitation while the DBI tiptoes through ineffective threats of sanction? The Mission building Ammiano complained about has as many as 40 tenants crammed from the attic to the basement and was issued numerous violations for a lack of heat and hot water, plus an abundance of garbage and rats.

The appropriate way to deal with this level of blatant violation is to quickly give the violators a two-week deadline to fix the problems — or else they go right to the city attorney for a lawsuit filing that could bring hefty fines.

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