Steve Brashear’s frustration exploded last year when he called the San Jose Code Enforcement Division to report illegal construction.
“There just seems to be a lack of responsiveness from the city to all services due to COVID,” Brashear said. While he understands the spotty service in the first few months of the pandemic, he’s not sure why his case couldn’t be resolved in a timely manner.
The department enforces portions of the San Jose City Code and focuses primarily on housing law violations, building code violations, zoning and epidemics, deputy director Rachel Roberts said. According to Roberts, there were 3,525 open, unresolved complaints on Tuesday.
“That’s a bit higher than we normally average,” she said, adding that complaints may take longer to resolve depending on the problem. “For something that is more transient or has more to do with epidemics … these are usually resolved pretty quickly.”
As with other city departments, the code enforcement operation suffered during the pandemic. Roberts said the department was originally classified as “non-material” and could only perform emergency inspections such as sewer leaks. Soon after, the city granted permission to conduct priority inspections, including cases of building code violations and illegal occupancy.
Part of Code Enforcement’s $ 12 million budget comes from the general fund, but most of it comes from fees tied to specific programs. For example, the department’s apartment building program, where officials routinely inspect buildings with three or more units, is funded by housing approval fees.
However, Roberts said that money from the general fund is important as it can be used for any purpose, such as hiring more staff to respond to complaints.
The enforcement of the code is divided into two programs: general code and multiple accommodations. General Code Inspectors respond to complaints ranging from vandalism to illegal business operations.
The San Jose Code Enforcement Department had 3,525 unresolved complaints as of May 4, according to Rachel Roberts, assistant director. Image courtesy of the City of San Jose.
Problems such as illegal dumping are often resolved within 45 days. Zoning violations in which a company operates where it is not permitted can last up to six months. It can take anywhere from six months to a year to fix building code violations that involve someone building a structure without a permit.
Brashear said he could see a link between pandemic restrictions and an increase in illegal construction, especially in the early days when Santa Clara County halted construction.
“There were enough people desperately looking for work in this industry to get the job done, to keep the food on the table,” Brashear said. “I can’t really blame people – if I had a family and had to make sure they were looked after, I’d probably find a way to keep working.”
The department has introduced new case-resolution tools, including a video inspection service launched in November that allows tenants, business owners, owners and contractors to zoom inspectors through a website.
The department is exacerbating the backlog of complaints and has plenty of vacancies as well, particularly as staff were diverted to provide emergency services during the pandemic. As of March there were three vacancies in the general code division, which normally employs 16 people. There were two vacancies in the multi-family housing program – typically 17 people are occupied – and three positions in the community development block grant program, which typically employs five people.
Department head Oscar Carrillo said 14 inspectors were stationed at the city’s emergency response center, inspecting homeless shelters and food banks, cleaning nearby warehouses and reaching out to companies to ensure compliance with COVID regulations.
“We basically just reached out to companies pre-emptively before the county could quote them,” said Carrillo.
The lack of inspectors explains Brashear’s experience. He said he spoke briefly with an inspector when his case was resolved. The process took about three months from his first phone call to the time he saw the illegal construction stop.
“I actually saw him come to the house next door,” said Brashear. “I got the impression that the code enforcement guy was just overwhelmed with too many cases.”
Contact Sonya Herrera at [email protected] or follow @SMHsoftware on Twitter.