Beating back Oakland’s blight
on March 11, 2011
In Oakland’s Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, building inspector Ed Labayog walks past a line of nearly a hundred people waiting to apply for a job with the city on his way to the street where his car is parked. Wearing a black button-up City of Oakland shirt and carrying a bag containing case files, a camera, and his lunch, he’s setting out to find blighted properties. For Labayog, seeking out trash, graffiti and signs of crumbling structures on private property is his job.
As an inspector with Building Services, a division of the Community and Economic Development Agency of Oakland, Labayog supervises five inspectors as part of a team that focuses on code enforcement. These codes—the city’s blight ordinance and housing code—regulate private property. Labayog and his division are out to enforce those laws by responding to hundreds of complaints a month, inspecting properties and documenting violations. The city then pushes property owners to fix problems by sending them notices and fines. It’s work Labayog paints as a struggle, given Oakland residents’ attitude toward blight.
“The hardest thing to change is the cultural thing, that this is Oakland so it’s acceptable,” says Labayog.
Labayog estimates that Building Services’ team of 12 code enforcement inspectors responds to 8,000 complaints a year, about 60 percent of which deal with blight in some way. The city’s blight ordinance is meant to “preserve the livability, appearance, and social and economic stability of the city,” as the city charter declares at the opening of its health and safety chapter. Labayog embraces this philosophy, but as someone who levies hefty fees for violations committed on private property, he faces critics who say either that inspectors don’t respond quickly enough to complaints of blight, or that his division charges too much for violations, sometimes without giving people enough time to fix them.
On a recent Saturday morning, while his team of inspectors swept the area around MacArthur Boulevard and Foothill Boulevard (the main roads of the Central City East sector of Oakland) as part of the city’s Tough on Blight campaign, Labayog drove with a reporter down the same route and pointed out some of the worst blighted properties he saw.
After exiting Interstate 580, it didn’t take him long to spot something. A beige house with synthetic siding—unfinished and adorned with boarded-up windows, graffiti and vines reaching over the sidewalk—sits as a testament to the current state of development in a city hit hard by the housing crisis. Its twin across the street is also unfinished. Labayog says the developer ran out of money partway through the construction process.
Labayog says this house isn’t particularly bad: There’s no mess in the yard, just an abundance of plants. Even though the dandelions, California poppies and extraneous vines grow off the lot, Labayog says the owner is responsible for them up to the street curb. But he says this is how larger problems start—vacant properties attract trash, illegal dumping, and vandalism. Already, a tagger has marked the broad side of this house with a name in black, bubble letters almost ten feet across.
The law also holds the home’s owner resposible for cleaning up vandalism. If it goes unchecked and a neighbor complains, an inspector could write them up and send them a notice. They owner has three weeks to address the problem or appeal and escape a fee; if the owner makes substantial progress, the inspector could grant them an extension.
That’s where the free ride ends. If code enforcement gets no response or the owner makes no progress, Labayog says the city will hire out the cleanup job to contractors, and then notify the owners again that the cleanup costs and administrative fees will be billed to them if they don’t clean it first. Within a week, crews with trucks and weed whackers could show up and clean up the premises whether the owner likes it or not. If there’s a locked gate, code enforcement seeks a warrant, and about two weeks later they could have authority to cut the lock.
Labayog calls the process “aggressive,” and says it has “high cost recovery”—in other words, that the city has a good record of getting owners to cough up those cleanup and administrative fees. These can turn into liens on the property if left unpaid.
Labayog has worked in Building Services for 11 years, and during the recession, he says he’s seen higher levels of compliance with code enforcement than in the past. With people needing to hold on to all their money, they tend to address violations sooner. “People get the message,” Labayog says.
Since he’s not out to inspect anyone today, Labayog doesn’t write up the graffiti-marked property. Back in the car, he drives cautiously as he looks out the window for other blighted lots. As he pulls up near an apartment building he says people often worry that he’s out writing parking tickets when they see his white City of Oakland station wagon.
Property owner’s responsibilities extend to rental properties, even if it’s the tenants who pile broken box springs, bulging garbage bags and futon pads on the sidewalk. Labayog often has to inspect occupied properties, like this apartment building on MacArthur Boulevard, which has just such a pile in front of a tall metal gate. On the balcony of the apartment, exercise equipment, bicycle parts and large scraps of wood are scattered. A man’s voice can be heard inside and a door from the house to the balcony shuts.
Labayog says dealing with an inhabited building can be a tense situation. “You don’t know if you’re going to run into people who are upset or adversarial,” he says. “We don’t carry any weapons. We don’t even have a pepper spray.” If the owner or residentgets too threatening, Labayog says inspectors can call the police department, and an officer will try to cool the owner down. Sometimes officers arrest property owners, but Labayog says it’s never happened while he was out at a site.
Canines present another issue. Once a pit bull chased Labayog out of a yard. “It was a situation where the property wasn’t maintained,” he says. “It didn’t seem to me there was any animals, and the gate was wide open. The pit bull came around the corner chasing me, but luckily I got back to my car in time.”
At this apartment building, no one emerges to give Labayog a hard time. He isn’t there to cite the landlord, anyway, so he drives away from the apartment building and stops further down MacArthur Boulevard to look at a closed-down Chinese restaurant.
The restaurant’s sign, washed out by the sun and stripped of neon, is lettered in script from a different era: “FAMOUS CHINESE FOOD” with an arrow for “PARKING.” It points to a large, empty parking lot with a carport next to a single-story building with an art deco façade. Graffiti marks the metal sliding barrier in front of the door. Labayog says the current property owner has been doing a good job; the tagger must have struck the night before.
Labayog says that a psychological effect ripples through a community when historic businesses close down. When the nearby Eastmont Mall failed as a commercial enterprise, Labayog says many surrounding businesses shut their doors. The formerly hopping mall, the region’s anchor retail center, eventually became a government multi-service center, years after JC Penny’s and Mervyns vacated in 1991. Now called the Eastmont Town Center, it hosts amenities like a health clinic, a social security office, and an Oakland Police Department substation, but the area never resurged as a retail center or regained its cultural vibrancy.
Labayog knows personally what the area by the Eastmont Mall used to look like. He worked in the mall at a chain shoe store called Flagg Brothers when he was a teenager in the 1970s. He’d recently emigrated from the Philipines, and Labayog says he was taken aback at the abundance of the United States. Of the mall, he says, “It was fun there. There was no vacancy.”
Labayog drove past the former mall, passing even more closed business in the area surrounding it. When properties go vacant, Labayog says, the “broken window effect” kicks in: When someone throws a rock through a window, or plants get overgrown, or part of a structure falls down, people see the property as fair game for dumping. Mattresses and garbage pile up, and tagging begins.
As a Building Services inspector, Labayog says he likes being able to intervene on a steadily worsening situation. “I love the fact that I can help the community,” Labayog says. “It’s personally gratifying that I can clean up a property.”
Inspectors don’t often go out on a Saturday looking for problems. Labayog’s crew is working overtime today, paid for by the city’s Redevelopment Agency as part of their “Tough on Blight” campaign, which is meant to clean up commercial corridors so that retail centers can blossom. The Redevelopment Agency owns many properties in Oakland they’d like to sell to developers, but those sales could be contingient on getting the area around those properties cleaned up. “If the blight issue is dealt with, they could probably entice more developers to invest in property,” Labayog says.
One of these properties is Seminary Point, a vacant lot on Seminary Avenue and Foothill Boulevard. Labayog parks across the street and walks over to the chain link fence surrounding the vast, grassy lot. It lies completely barren except for a sign advertising plans for a retail center. Currently a non-profit called Men of Valor maintains the property, preventing the need for Building Services to hire out the cleanup at great cost. But for the property to sell, Labayog says blight in the surrounding properties must be addressed—hence the Tough on Blight campaign.
Money for these campaigns could become very scarce in the coming months. Redevelopment Agencies across the state face extinction this summer if Governor Jerry Brown’s current budget proposal becomes law. Code enforcement officials will carry on its usual operations, responding to complaints on weekdays, without extra funds to seek out blight on commercial corridors.
At Labayog’s next stop, a house in West Oakland, a cleanup crew is at work. On a side street between Adeline Street and Mandela Parkway, a two-story Victorian sits in evident abandon as four workers haul plant debris by the garbage-can-full from the site and dump their loads into a truck bed.
Much of the house’s white paint has peeled, showing grayed wood underneath. The supervising worker says no one has come out of the house; they think it’s empty. There’s no gate, so Building Services didn’t need a warrant to enter the property. In the back, a large piece of plywood with a spray-painted message leans against the house. “Keep out O.P.D.” it reads, with a drawing of an eye spray-painted below the words. Near the front of the house, Labayog smells gas coming from a pipe connected to the house and points out where the meter has been removed.
Building Services is often alerted to blighted residential properties like this one because of complaints from neighbors. An inspector called out to investigate a blighted property may end up writing up the property owner for structural defects or other code violations, as well. If the owner doesn’t address these issues within a certain timeframe, or if the inspector doesn’t see significant progress, fines will start adding up and a cleaning crew, like the one working here, will be called in to clean up the exterior.
Labayog says bills can be extensive even for a smaller cleanup job, which might cost around $500 if done by a private contractor. “People ask, ‘Why am I being charged so much?’” Labayog says. “Because we had to do it for you.”
Critics of Building Services complain that the division doesn’t respond fast enough to blight, Labayog says. “Sometimes people think we can cite a property, give them a ticket, and clean it up that day,” he says, “but it just doesn’t work that way.” From initial complaint to cleanup, Labayog estimates a minimum of five weeks of administrative work is necessary. If the inspector needs a warrant, add an extra two weeks. “Then we cut the lock, clean it up,” Labayog says.
If the property owner doesn’t pay for the cleanup, liens could add up on the house even as inspections continue. Some owners abandon their interest in their properties, but the liens remain tied to the lot and become the responsibility of the next owner if the building ever changes hands. Labayog says one abandoned vacant lot in East Oakland has gotten a spruce-up from Building Services every year since the mid-1990s, with fees piling on each time.
But don’t these ever-expanding fees make it impossible to sell the lot to a new developer, as the Redevelopment Agency hopes? “If we didn’t do the clean up, this place would be a jungle,” Labayog says. “We’ve talked about that so many times.”
As morning draws to a close, Labayog chats with the workers about the progress of the cleanup, and then gets back in his car to return to the city administration building. Labayog says he wants to make sure people know that the inspection process isn’t about charging large fees. “People already have the idea that code enforcement charges all these fees,” he says, “Like we’re trying to get all these fees, but it’s not the case. If they know what’s involved, they wouldn’t say that. All our fees are approved by the city council.”
Ultimately, Labayog sees his work as making Oakland a better place to live. “Our primary goal is to preserve livability, life safety,” he says. Despite criticisms from residents and property owners, Labayog says, “Hopefully they will understand our processes, our resources.”
In an era of limited staff and budget constraints, he says, “We’re like gladiators, fighting.”
As Labayog walks back toward the city administration building, the line of people waiting to apply for a city job is just as long as when he left three hours before. Labayog stops to chat with two young people filling out their applications and asks which job is open. Clearly not noticing his tidy City of Oakland button-up, they explain where he can get his own application.
“Thanks, I already work for the city,” he says.
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