Shenanigans on the Boulevard

by Dennis Evanosky

At the City-sponsored workshop "Enforcing Zoning Regulations and Abating Blight," I looked the lion in the eye. I saw not only does this king of the beasts have no teeth, he meows rather than roars.

I'm referring to the City of Oakland's code enforcement and zoning departments. "We are overwhelmed," said Calvin Wong, Oakland's chief code enforcement officer who spoke at the workshop. And it's no wonder.

In July, without a proper response system in place, the City mailed 85,000 "Keep Oakland Clean" brochures. This brochure spelled out just what the new Oakland would look like: everyone places and removes garbage cans for collection on time; debris, litter and garbage disappear; sofas and mattresses, appliances and personal property, junk cars and laundry are no longer in view.

The brochure gave phone numbers to call, and the phones started to ring. The 1,000 calls a day overwhelmed the City. "Our phone system collapsed," said Wong. "It now takes four to five weeks to get a response to calls with issues not health- and safety-related."

"Oakland's systems don't work," said workshop participant, attorney Leila Moncharsh. "The City needs to send people to adequately staffed systems." Moncharsh, who represents clients in front of the City's Planning Commission, cited the City's Drug Hotline as another example of Oakland's well-meaning inadequacy.

People call the drug hotline and expect a response, she said. Yet OPD has only six narcotics officers, all off Fridays and Saturdays, days of heightened drug activity. "This is a badly impaired system," she said.

Moncharsh points to the same "just call us" mentality behind the City's 85,000 brochures. Just calling about blight is ineffective, she says. A strategy needs to be in place ahead of time.

The City Council must help constituents with that strategy, she says. The City Attorney must learn how to enforce public nuisance issues, and the Planning Commission needs a firm working definition of public nuisance.

Alan Beales of the Northern Alameda County Rental Housing Association has a point of view closer to my heart. "Oakland is incredibly poor," Beales says. "In some sectors of the City, there has been no income growth. Far too many landlords take advantage of the situation and do not want change.

"Too many Oakland landlords have no stake in cleaning up and maintaining their properties," he says. According to Beales, 58 percent of the housing stock in Oakland is rental property. While many landlords take excellent care of their properties, it only takes a few who don't to ruin a neighborhood.

Moncharsh says these recalcitrant few can be divided into three categories. Those in the first say, "I didn't know." Those in the second throw up their hands and say, "There's nothing I can do." And those in the third defiantly say, "Screw you!"

It's easy to identify those in the second and third categories. Their buildings stay blighted for years. A walk through any Oakland neighborhood can pinpoint them accurately.

A call to the City of Oakland about slum landlords who only care about their pocketbooks does little, and the landlords know it. "Systems need to be developed so things don't fall through the cracks," says Beales, echoing Moncharsh's view about Oakland's inadequacy.

The lion has no teeth. We need look no further than Loma Vista and MacArthur for a landlord/tenant with absolutely no financial interest in property improvement. Last November,their "garage" was the test case for the City's new blight-enforcement procedure. When it came time for court, the City was ill-prepared. The tenant was charged some back fees, but business went on as usual.

Of course, this was none of the City's fault. Two Oakland officials told me (both with straight faces) that the loss in court was the neighbors' fault: they didn't come to a hearing that they weren't told about.

Then Robert Bobb got involved. The crowd of officials at the ensuing inspection was stunning; the promises impressive. In stepped the king of the beasts.

"The tenant is being fee charged," the code compliance lion meowed. I've heard this one before!

"He's been told to get rid of the curb cut on MacArthur," purred the lion with a toothless grin. "He has to put a fence up as well."

"Does the tenant have a deadline?" I asked.

"We mailed him a final notice," said the lion.

"Does the tenant have a deadline?" I repeated.

The silence of the lion spoke volumes.