Friday, September 26, 2008

Another View on the Berkeley Blight Ordinance

I recently held a meeting with several City of Berkeley Staff to discuss their progress (or not) on a number of complaints related to blight. Unfortunately, I came away a little more than frustrated with the City of Berkeley because I seemed to hear a lot of "we can't, it's not possible, the problem is too small, we do not have enough staff, if we enforce it in South Berkeley we would have to enforce it in the rest of the City, people would get upset if we enforced the blight ordinance, we can't have the Public Works Department clean the public sidewalk of overgrown weeds because everyone would expect them to clean the sidewalks in the rest of the City", and many suggestions more than once that the residents should clean it up themselves with offers to provide the equipment or that the residents should band together and sue the derelict property owners in court. There was little or no sense of ownership of residents' complaints.

It is evident that there are some serious resource, legal, and personnel problems with the City of Berkeley when it comes to addressing blight.

In order for the City to address blight in a significant and substantive way in South Berkeley, residents will need to advocate for: (1) Sufficient staffing of the Neighborhood Liaisons, Environmental Health and Code Enforcement Offices so that there can no longer be the excuse that there isn't enough staff to address blight issues; (2) Removal of Gregory Daniels as the Supervising Code Enforcement Officer. His approach in dealing with the public and his lack of ownership of code enforcement problems is notorious. The City has fielded numerous complaints about his behavior and his inability to work with the public, yet he continues to remain in his position of having significant public contact and continues to adversely affect the pursuit of code enforcement issues; (3) Direction from City Council through the budget process and work plans that the City Manager's Office and the City Attorney should evaluate and bring to the Council potential amendments to the Blight Ordinance and the Abandoned Vehicle Ordinance. The goal here would be to expand the Blight Ordinance to cover owner-occupied single family dwellings and to ensure that the Blight Ordinance can be triggered with only one of the recognized conditions of blight rather than 2, and to reduce the time frames for requiring property owners to deal with abandoned or inoperable vehicles; and (4) Developing some more transparent standards/protocols for determining when the City must enforce the blight ordinance. Right now there is far too much discretion that allows City Staff to simply blow off residents' concerns because they don't feel that a complaint is significant enough.

Having said that, I dredged up this letter to the Berkeley Voice dating back to December 3, 1992 regarding the blight ordinance. L A Wood, I am sure is well meaning, but in our opinion very misguided. One just has to go to South Berkeley and have a look around at the blighted properties and judge for yourself whether there is sufficient enforcement by City Staff. Arguments that blight ordinances eliminate free expression and traditional elements of the neighborhood are simply code words for allowing people to maintain their properties as dumps. It is exactly during difficult economic times that residents must take care to maintain their property for fear of declining property values. In this economic climate, the worst since the Great Depression, it is even more critical that the City step up its efforts to enforce the blight Ordinance. Otherwise, the City's lack of enforcement simply rewards the few scofflaws at the real expense and further loss of equity for property owners--yes hard working, law-abiding, tax paying citizens.

Read on my friends...

Anti-Blight Ordinance: Leave well enough alone
L A Wood
Berkeley Voice, December 3, 1992
The Voice received a copy of the following letter to Berkeley Mayor Lonnie Hancock and Berkeley City Council members.

I addressed the council with concerns over the proposed anti-blight ordinance. As a follow-up to my public comment, I am writing this letter to encourage you to vote NO on the adoption of the proposed anti-blight ordinance. Of course, I am not pro-blight, but I do recognize many of the difficulties and abuses surrounding this anti-blight program. Historically, Berkeley has avoided blight legislation. Over the last 20 years, the entire city has prospered without a working anti-blight ordinance. Our state and local building codes along with health and safety standards functioned to control blight. Why do we need more?

It was suggested to the council that if you were to answer the question, "What is blight?" you would most likely provide nine different answers. If there was one common response, it would be that of vacant buildings. The planning commission in the development of Phase 1 made first priority of these particular properties. Vacant residential properties are easily identified and hurt our neighborhoods. If indeed Berkeley, needs a blight ordinance, then focus this ordinance on the real problem: vacant properties. Limit this ordinance to Phase 1 only. Why do we need more?

The proposed anti-blight ordinance is directed at West and South Berkeley. Phases 2 and 3 of the ordinance amount to little more than a punitive city dress code. The subjective language and the board criteria will promote problems in both administrative abuse and public understanding. As a public, we have a right to fair and well defined laws that set our expectation of government. A just and open administrative process is less likely to arise from an ordinance so under defined and poorly structure. Over the years, this dress code will remove many of the traditional elements of our neighborhoods.

First the free boxes will be removed and then the community bulletin boards. Much of our city's front yard art will be abated along with individual expression. Berkeley doesn't need this predatory ordinance to control blight. In District 2 we have the highest number of Section 8 housing. This means that these properties undergo critical inspection before being certified, as do other Section 8s in the city. Rent control also contributes to the process of property management and review. Our city even has program assistance (soft approach) in blight prevention, "Christmas in April." It is all our existing programs that contribute to a relatively blight-free Berkeley in 1992. Why do we need more?

At a time when most city departments face personnel and budget reductions, the size of the Codes and Inspections department is due to increase. The anti-blight ordinance provides for funding and increased staff to fully implement the ordinance. This most recent attempt to create alternative funding to the general fund has an unfortunate consequence. It creates a conflict of interest where the Codes and Inspection department would be directly funded by those whom they victimize. A predictably larger department of Codes and Inspection will be armed with broader discretion and self serving motives (enforcing phase 2 and 3) as they feed on Berkeley property owners and perpetuate their own fiscal existence. Why do we need more?

The stated purpose of this ordinance is in part "to promise the health, safety and general welfare of the citizens..." The impact of anti-blight legislation on 'Berkeley's citizens will prove to fall short of this goal. The general welfare of many citizens will be put in jeopardy, especially those of us residing in South and West Berkeley. The council will set in motion a bureaucratic program that will harass and create economic hardship for many of its longtime citizens. Why do we need more?

The council could not find a worse possible time for the passage of such important legislation. The Planning Commission is somewhat in disarray as it winds up the last months of its term. Though the commission gave its initial support to the council, several commissioners expressed discontent over changes made later by the council to the final draft. The commission is not in any state to give further criticism. They did not even have a quorum to open their October meeting. Council is not in much better shape. With its term ending in November, a number of council members will not be around to see the implementation and impact of this ordinance. This anti-blight ordinance has a long-range design and should be entered into slowly.
The council has self-imposed a delay in the second reading of this anti-blight ordinance. I hope you will take the time to review these very important issues. At a time of acknowledged economic downturn, our city should be careful not to impose additional burdens on its citizens. Berkeley's community should be afforded some public input via a public hearing. As a devoted citizen to Berkeley, I urge that you vote No on this anti blight ordinance and yes to Berkeley.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I cannot agree with this post more. I've had 3 conversations with Greg Daniels and his cavalier attitude along with his blatant misunderstanding of the Berkeley municipal code is laughable. He told me two weeks ago that the blight ordinance does not pertain to apartment buildings, and that leaving discarded furniture in front of apartments is acceptable. Both of these statements were the exact opposite of Berkeley municipal municipal code...