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Inspections from Hell

Building inspectors in Alameda have been accused of harassing homeowners, soliciting bribes, and imposing heavy fines for questionable violations.



The crumbling, boarded-up apartment house on Alameda's Central Avenue was a gleaming Colonial Revival mansion when it was built more than a century ago. Today, tree branches swallow the cavernous residence, and its wooden shingles are peeling away, revealing patches of cracking, white paint.

The property has fallen into disrepair in recent years because of owner John Doherty's ongoing dispute with City of Alameda building inspectors. In a complaint filed in federal district court last year, Doherty, 72, claimed that overzealous inspectors unjustly evicted him from the dilapidated Victorian, his home of three decades. According to his complaint, the inspectors contended the ten-bedroom apartment house was supposed to be a duplex and demanded that Doherty convert the 9,000-square-foot residence to two units. When he balked, and said the property was already an apartment decades before he purchased it, inspectors hastily condemned it and evicted him along with his renters, stripping Doherty of his main source of income.

In an interview, Doherty, a Coast Guard Reserve veteran whose demeanor is at once gruff and amiable, said the ordeal has "consumed" his life, and he now lives in a converted warehouse in East Oakland with Social Security as his only income. "I open my eyes in the morning and think, what am I doing here?" he said.

Representatives for the city say that Doherty was evicted not because of the "illegal units" but because the property had become uninhabitable and unsafe for Doherty and his elderly tenants. "The house had reached a state of deterioration" with multiple electrical, sanitation and structural violations, said Greg Fox, a San Francisco attorney and private legal counsel for the City of Alameda.

Doherty, who sued the City of Alameda in 2008, is not the first to tangle with local building inspectors. Alameda, a small city with a wealth of historic architecture and little new construction activity to regulate because of its Measure A, which prohibits the building of multi-unit dwellings, is known for strict enforcement of building codes. Several lawsuits filed in recent years accuse the agency of going too far, arbitrarily enforcing complex ordinances in an effort to raise money for a bloated department with little to do.

One city building inspector served time in jail for soliciting bribes from the owner of a Chinese restaurant, and another has been accused in court of similar behavior. And one prominent Alamedan who asked the city council to look into the matter later complained that his business was then subjected to overzealous city code enforcement.

Observers generally agree that inspectors have become less aggressive since layoffs cut the Planning and Building Department nearly in half last year. (Saying the department was costing $1 million more than it was bringing in, officials slashed sixteen jobs and merged the agency with the city's Community Development Department.) But experts say even with fewer inspectors walking the streets, Alameda's abundance of historic Victorians combined with the city's extensive building codes can still create a tangle of problems for homeowners.

According to Steve Edrington, executive director of the Rental Housing Association of Northern Alameda County, the tiny island city has more Victorians than San Francisco. It's difficult, "if not impossible," to bring many of the structures into compliance with modern building codes, he said.

Laurence Padway, an Alameda attorney who has studied code enforcement in the city, said the permit and inspection process can become "a nightmare" for homeowners unfamiliar with Alameda's 50,000 pages of building codes. "It's like an extra tax that goes with living in Alameda," he said.

Alameda building official Greg McFann said Alameda's building codes are "99.9 percent the same" as any other city and no more difficult for homeowners to understand. "I know that's been his argument for some time," he said of Padway, "but it's not the case."

According to Padway, as of 2005 about 10 percent of Alameda homes had been cited for "code noncompliance." (He said he came up with the figure by getting records from the building department on how many homes had been cited for code violations, and then comparing those figures with public documents showing the total number of houses located in the island city.) The fines for such violations can be high. In one instance, a couple sued the city after a surprise inspection resulted in $28,000 in fees. In 2004, the city attorney dropped a criminal case against a local landlord after an Alameda Superior Court judge found the building codes the city was seeking to enforce were a violation of state law.

"A Questionable Witchhunt"

In 2003, Padway helped homeowners Rita Mohlen and Richard Skrinde sue the city and building official McFann. The couple claimed McFann retaliated with dozens of code-violation citations after they rebuffed longtime inspector George Carder's attempts to solicit a bribe during a 2000 inspection of their waterfront home and then asked that the incident be investigated.

According to their complaint, Carder suggested he could resolve their code violation problems "while rubbing his thumb and forefinger together so as to suggest a solicitation of remuneration." Carder allegedly told Mohlen and Skrinde that "if they did not cooperate with him, the city would make the plaintiffs tear down their house." When Mohlen and Skrinde refused, they said, Carder forced them to stop the remodeling work already underway.

By 2002, court documents show Mohlen and Skrinde were facing 88 violations — up from the original eight Carder had found during his visit two years earlier.

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