El Cajon apartment inspection program keeping city safer

LC Wright sees plenty of things on a daily basis that you don’t want to see — or smell, or touch or breathe.

The new Building and Fire Safety Inspector for El Cajon is trying to make sure you don’t ever encounter the things he’s spotted in the city in his first year of work:

  • Roaches scurrying inside a bedroom with broken windows.
  • Rat poop on stove burners in filthy kitchens.
  • Broken sewer lines running from a bathroom through a living room, leaving a brown trail behind.

Wright has also seen his share of dangerous hazards in local apartments, including burnt-out electrical outlets that would shock you if you tried to plug something in, rusty nails sticking out from boarded-up windows and three-inch layers of dust on broken ceiling fans.

”I’ve see some truly deplorable conditions,” Wright said. “And I’ve heard stories from people who were sleeping and awakened by bugs crawling on them.”

City Councilman Gary Kendrick said that more than a year ago, complaints started coming in from tenants of some of the buildings about substandard conditions. Some were afraid to complain for fear of being kicked out of their apartments. Other complaints came in from managers of buildings adjacent to unsafe complexes, he said.

That led to the hiring of Wright last June at an annual salary of just over $60,000 as part of the city’s new Proactive Apartment Inspection Program.

“The citizens of El Cajon have the right to live in clean and safe housing,” Kendrick said. “You can’t keep good people in a bad building. Buildings that aren’t kept up have a snowball effect. Bad buildings bring in... people who tend to not pay the rent. And that affects the building next door. A responsible manager in the building next door will lose his good tenants. And it spirals down in the neighborhood.”

Wright is literally the eyes of the city as it cracks down on multifamily dwelling units that are out of code.

While not all apartments have been neglected and are well-maintained, about 20 percent of them still have minor violations, such as a lack of simple maintenance or landscaping, according to Dan Pavao, the city’s Building Official/Fire Marshal.

The city’s proactive inspection program aims to improve the way El Cajon as a whole looks, turning neglected and deferred maintenance into clean living spaces for people.

The program asks apartment owners, managers and tenants to fix or replace things that are broken or missing such as faulty smoke detectors and missing electrical plate covers. Where the ground is barren, it asks for some simple landscaping to be added. Where parking lots are filled with cracks, bumps and potholes, it asks for striping and speed humps.

The first part of Wright’s job is surveying streets and individual complexes for visible code violations that are considered health and safety hazards. Wright identifies them, and with backup from the city’s Building Official/Fire Marshal and Code Enforcement staff, sends written notification to property owners and on-site managers about a planned inspection inside any dwelling that concerns them.

The city tells the property owners about a date and time for inspection and advises them to let the tenants have at least 24 hours advance notice before city staff goes in. On the day of the inspection, the property owner or on-site manager meets with city staff, violations are documented, and follow-up instructions are conducted with progress tracked until fixes are complete.

Property owners have been good about taking action, according to Tony Shute, the city’s director of community development. Only one landlord has been cited.

If needed, fines for those in noncompliance range from $100 per violation per day for minor violations to up to $1,000 per violation per day for the most hazardous of violations.

More than half of the approximately 36,000 housing units in El Cajon are considered multifamily, including 800 apartment complexes and more than 14,500 apartment units. Many of them have been suffering from years of neglect.

Shute said that before the Proactive Apartment Inspection Program began, the city addressed these types of problems through complaints, staff observations, or relayed to code compliance via public safety — such as police or fire responding to a call for service and finding hazards.

Wright said that so far all property owners have agreed to the inspection of their property. Through the beginning of June, about a year after it started, the program has inspected more than 125 complexes and 1,800 units.

“One property owner had an issue with us and did not want us going in to their apartments,” Wright said, holding up dozens of envelopes with letters inside that included threats of a lawsuit. “But we were able to talk him off the ledge.”

For tenants who are concerned about what is happening on their property, they can come in and talk to someone in the city about it, call the city’s code compliance department at (619) 441-1742 or fill out a form on the city’s website at cityofelcajon.us/i-want-to/sign-up-for/a-service-request.

Shute said once the city receives a complaint, it will investigate to determine if there is a code violation and will then contact the property owner and on-site manager and require compliance.

If a landlord refuses to comply, the city has several options, including fines and civil action in court, he said.

Landlord Jack Campagna said he understands and appreciates what El Cajon is doing to clean up the city.

Campagna, who runs Cypress Development, bought four residential units in the city last December with plans to clean, renovate and rent them. His group has done similar fix-ups of run-down complexes in North Park.

Campagna bought and renovated a complex on South Mollison Avenue at Lexington Avenue and said “there was a waiting list for renters for the first time in more than 10 years of doing this” despite an increase from $800 to $1,295 to rent a one-bedroom apartment.

He is finishing up renovations on a complex on Emerald Avenue that fell into disrepair and had myriad code enforcement issues.

“People in El Cajon are hungry for a good product,” Campagna said. “Some of the owners are fighting the city, saying they are jerks for this program, but the program is just enforcing city codes. People need to embrace it. If they put money in, they’re going to get money out.

“We’ve brought in a better mix of people, nice blue-collar workers and it’s awesome. That’s what they need there. Kudos to the city of El Cajon for what they’re doing. They’re cleaning up the crap that’s there.”

karen.pearlman@sduniontribune.com

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