Residents renting apartments or houses in Buena Park may soon know what kind of condition their living space is in – and what landlords should be fixing – as city officials consider enacting a routine inspection program.
People throughout cities in North and Central Orange County often show up to city council meetings to demand their elected officials hold landlords accountable to fix critical systems like faulty wiring, broken heating or problematic plumbing.
Now, Buena Park City Council members are poised to roll out a routine inspection program that’s expected to send code enforcement officers inside rental units throughout the city to examine the living conditions and push property owners to make repairs.
“What this program would be looking at is the quality of the habitability of the building itself,” said Matt Foulkes, director of the city’s Community and Economic Development Department, at Tuesday’s council meeting.
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Foulkes also said city code inspectors issued 1,356 notices, violations and citations in 2022 from the existing program that mainly focuses on exterior conditions and relies on resident complaints.
Councilman Jose Trinidad Castañeda, who spearheaded the inspection proposal, said it’s critical for city officials to make sure people are living in clean and safe apartments and rented houses.
“It’s a public health crisis where residents aren’t afforded a quality place to live,” Castañeda said.
In a city of roughly 83,000 residents, Foulks said there’s over 8,000 rental units scattered throughout Buena Park.
The initiative could cost up to $2 million – about $106 per rental unit annually – but those numbers are based on a two-year pilot program that requires hiring some additional employees.
“I’d rather see this be a permanent program because every year the housing stock, the apartment stock in this city gets older,” Mayor Art Brown said.
During public comments, some real estate interest groups raised concerns about potential cost increases to property owners.
Tim Shaw, government affairs director for Pacific West Association of Realtors, said city council members could face pushback over cost increases.
“We do have quite an affordability problem and adding any additional fee to the cost of housing is of course going to get passed on to the tenant,” Shaw said, who’s also an OC Board of Education Trustee.
“We would probably be ultimately opposed to anything adding costs that way,” Shaw said.
Later in the meeting, Councilman Connor Traut broke down the cost increase a different way.
“If they end up passing that on to tenants, we’re talking less than $10 a month,” Traut said.
Chip Ahlswede, spokesman for the Apartment Association of Orange County, said a blanket approach to all rental units would unnecessarily drive up costs and city officials should focus on hotspots in the city where complaints from renters usually come from.
Echoing Shaw’s statements, Ahlswede criticized property owners and managers who failed to properly upkeep rental housing.
Both Shaw and Ahlswede said the inspection program should be based on the complaints filed by residents and not something every rental unit in the city’s subjected to on a regular basis.
But during public comment, some residents said they’ve been retaliated against for filing maintenance complaints – catching the attention of one councilmember.
“I think it’s been made clear here tonight that there are too many people who are fearful of making complaints and I don’t think we can leave the health and wellbeing of our community members in the hands of whether or not they feel brave enough to make those complaints,” Councilwoman Susan Sonne said.
While details of the program are still being cemented in place, Foulkes said it’s expected to generally work by issuing property owners a warning, then citations if they fail to fix any issues city inspectors find.
While some council members cited cost concerns at Tuesday’s meeting, they all expressed support for the program – and told staff to bring back a proposal for a permanent program with different scenarios like rolling inspections, or only inspecting older properties in an effort to bring down costs.
“I’d like to make a suggestion that we come back with different scenarios and then possibly discuss the options based on the dollar amounts,” Councilwoman Joyce Ahn said. “I am in favor of doing something about it.”
Brown said the city can’t afford to pay for the program, adding it would have to be self-funded.
“We’re already in a structural deficit in our budget,” Brown said. “If the program does go into effect, it has to pay for itself.”
City staff said an updated proposal could come before council members in April or May.
It’s still unclear if city officials will be able to put together a funding mechanism to help cash-strapped property owners pay for critical maintenance.
“I’m looking to support a program that’s going to create a better living situation for a lot of residents, but without creating higher rent,” Councilman Traut said.
All seven residents who spoke during Tuesday’s public comment supported the rental inspection proposal and said many renters are afraid to raise maintenance issues with their landlords for fear of being charged more in rent or evicted.
“We all have the right to live with dignity and respect – we pay taxes and are consumers in the city,” resident Romona Lopez told city council members.
Castañeda, himself a renter, said he understands concerns raised by residents because his landlord hasn’t fixed the heat in his apartment.
“This winter was the coldest winter in the last decade thanks to climate change and I was freezing in my apartment – there’s no insulation, the windows are single pane.”
Spencer Custodio is the civic editor. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.
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