Andy Vincent, outside his house, has trouble with Building Services.
By Barbara Grady and Jennifer Inez Ward
It's the word on the street: Heaven help you if you fall into the cross hairs of the city of Oakland’s Building Services department.
The division, which is housed under the city's Community Economic Development Agency, has gained a reputation among many Oakland property owners as a hard-nosed agency that harasses property owners rather than help them solve problems or correct blight. That the agency has been the subject of two grand jury investigations within 10 years comes as little surprise to many Oakland property owners...
This article is part of 'Oakland Inside,' a continuing investigative news series that examines the inner workings of Oakland City Hall and explores accountability issues around CEDA Building Services. This coverage was made possible by a grant from The Fund for Investigative Journalism. Read all stories in this series.
(Editor's Note: In early July, the Alameda County Grand Jury issued a report blasting the city's Building Services division, the department in charge of tackling blight and enforcing housing code laws. The report was highly critical of a number of Building Services practices, including imposing excessive fines, allowing inspectors to intimidate and threaten property owners and the department’s frequent use of prospective liens - an aggressive and punishing code enforcement warning that most cities don’t even use.)
Auto mechanic James Singh had been fighting the city’s Building Services division for nine years over liens he claimed were illegal when he received a 48-hour warning that his business was about to be auctioned unless he paid $30,000. Alarmed, Singh borrowed money against his home to pay the liens - and now faces foreclosure on his home.
Betty Timbers not only lost her property to foreclosure, but lost “everything” after liens for blight at her 26th Street property piled up for lack of repairs following a fire. Yet the Oakland’s Building Services division, she said, wouldn’t let her take out building permits to repair the property until the liens were paid.
Andrew Vincent thought he was handling a simple drainage issue when the problem mushroomed into a full-fledged battle with Building Services, $48,000 in liens, his building being condemned (eventually overturned) and a building inspector allegedly caught on tape hunting through his garbage.
Their problems amount to more than headaches.
“We couldn’t even start the work because the fines were so huge,” Timbers said. “We kind of went belly up. We lost everything.”
When the Alameda Count Grand Jury blasted Oakland Community and Economic Development Agency’s Building Services division in a report in early July 2011 for abusive and exploitative practices against Oakland homeowners, there were many who were not surprised.
According to the grand jury, the methods used by the 116-person department to bring in $24 million in annual revenue have brought multiple homeowners to the brink of foreclosure - and beyond, in some cases.
Driven into foreclosure
“The city of Oakland started billing me with liens for operating illegally even though I’ve been in business for 18 years,” auto mechanic Singh said.
He even won a favorable ruling from an Alameda County claims court against those liens, but still they kept coming.
“Each time the inspectors drive by they charge you again," he said. The drawn out fight has taken its toll on Singh. He has heart tremors, is no longer married and the bank now has possession of his house. He attributes it all to the stress of fighting the Building Services department.
Timbers also has lost her property following a financial Catch 22 when she couldn’t get a permit to repair the home until she paid liens, but couldn’t pay liens until the home produced rental income again, which meant it needed repairs. The cycle ended with the home in foreclosure, the city not getting any fees and Timbers left without a source of income.
A whistle-blower’s story
Andrew Vincent's problems with the city stretch back to 2007. Vincent had a dispute with his neighbor over blocked drainage at his property in the Ghost Town section of Oakland when he called Building Services.
"Instead of the city doing anything about the drainage, they came after me," Vincent said.
Since that time, he said, it's been a nightmare, as fines kept rolling in. Vincent said he tried to appeal the liens.
"But, it didn't work," he said. "So, I filed four more appeals and I still couldn't get a hearing and in the process, they put $48,000 in liens against my property, including prospective liens."
Then, Vincent said he saw the building inspector rooting through his trash. He captured it all on his building's security camera system.
"I did notice somebody going through my garbage that just didn't look like a regular person you expect to see going through your garbage ... then I realized, hey that's the building inspector that I've been trying to get a hold of and he won't contact me. He just keeps coming out here checking my garbage looking around. So I
left notes for him inside the garbage cans and he came out and took pictures of the notes."
Vincent and West Oakland residents Gwillym Martin and Michelle Cassens were the property owners whose complaints first caught the ear of the grand jury.
Martin and Cassens said they experienced Building Services’ intimidating practices at their 355 Myrtle St. property. Building Services slapped a lien on their property because it had two living units. They were told to correct it. But Cassens said the house has had two units long before the couple bought it in 2003; in fact it has been a duplex since 1957.
In an interview with Oakland Local, Cassens said an inspector asked her to pay him upfront to avoid fees about the duplex. When she wouldn't pay, she said the fees and liens grew. Then "my truck was torched" in her driveway. She alleges it was the inspector.
This couple took on a fight with the city by starting a website auditoaklandceda.com to rally others.
A member of the Alameda County Grand Jury said it was an easy decision to investigate the city's Building Services Division. (See the grand jury’s report here.)
“There was an overwhelming number of complaints,” about the city of Oakland Building Services Department, said Dale Rogers Marshall, Grand Jury Forewoman.
She said the grand jury received "an avalanche” of complaints.
“Part of why we looked at it as a serious problem was because of the number of individuals hurt by this,” she said.
According to Marshall, these individuals were “real victims,” often times “vulnerable people” some of whom did not speak English or know the system of government well enough “to speak up for themselves.”
“That is why we took this issue,” as one to investigate further, Marshall said.
Complaints have come in about the city’s Building Services division in recent years from every corner of the city and every demographic, she said.
The building inspectors
The grand jury report said that inspectors dealt with property owners in “an atmosphere of hostility and intimidation” and that the problems were systemic throughout the department. In one case cited, inspectors had a warrant to inspect a property, but once inside the inspectors took the liberty of removing everything, including the homeowner’s pet dog and then slapped a lien of $30,000 on the property.
In another instance, a homeowner was fined $18,000 for “trash and debris” that later was determined to be just toys in the yard.
“If we thought these were about nuisance, we wouldn’t have taken it up,” Marshall said.
The investigation found that inspectors were often causing real hardship for people and often intimidated them.
Among other things, Building Services has long made use of “prospective liens” to serve as warnings to property owners to take action to clean up a property. A prospective lien is a first notice of a code violation or blight and is described by the city as being under $1,000.
According to the grand jury, these prospective lien notices often don’t find their way to the actual property owners because of Building Services’ outdated and poor record keeping. Some of the prospective liens are in the tens of thousands of dollars and once a prospective lien is on a property, it clouds the property’s marketability.
Ten years ago, the Alameda County Grand Jury of the time had recommended that Building Services limit the use of prospective liens. This 2010-11 grand jury found that, instead, the department was using them aggressively - and pricing them at far more than $1,000.
In one case cited, Building Services attached a prospective lien of $50,000 to a parking lot for overgrown vegetation and debris. In another, the city issued a prospective lien of $35,000 after the property owner already complied with the city’s complaint and the case was closed.
Few other cities use prospective liens, even large cities. Neither San Francisco nor San Jose use prospective liens at all, according to the grand jury.
Interviews with fined property owners and the grand jury report indicate that inspectors use the power they’ve been given to enforce blight reduction as tools to run roughshod over people - often without the result of abating the blight.
Blight is unquestionably a problem in Oakland. But if property owners fined for blight get drawn into long battles and charged liens they can't pay, the city doesn't get funds. Building Services eventually receives payments on 75 percent of the liens it generates, according to its director's testimony at a May 2009 City Council meeting.
Grand jury recommendations
In the days after the grand jury report became public, the city of Oakland released a response to its recommendations.
In the one-page document, the city acknowledged room for improvement on some counts and listed the various steps it would take to rectify some concerns, such as transitioning from a complaint-driven organization to one that tries to preserve neighborhoods, and making sure the division adopts use of a new computer system the city purchased.
Oakland has 90 days to formally respond to the grand jury's report. In the meantime, it plans to issue an interim 45-day report Aug. 15.
Two strong suggestions the grand jury made are to reconsider the authority given inspectors, particularly whether it is wise to give them police powers since many of them allegedly bullied property owners.
The report also recommends the city stop using prospective liens. According to the report, “there is a perception that the fees associated with the liens are used by the city as a source of revenue.” Some say this could be a big deal for a city struggling under a large deficit.
Tomorrow: Part Two of the series - Top Oakland Officials Sit Down with Oakland Local to discuss the Building Services Division
For earlier stories see the Index page: Sending residents into foreclosure: Has Oakland's CEDA Building Services Group done more harm than good?
This series exploring accountability issues around CEDA Building Services was made possible by a grant from The Fund for Investigative Journalism.