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Data forms backbone of investigation into Sonoma’s substandard housing

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Data forms backbone of investigation into Sonoma’s substandard housing

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Guadalupe Vargas with her daughter Jaylani, 1, outside their mold covered bedroom window at the Walnut Creek Apartments.
Guadalupe Vargas with her daughter Jaylani, 1, outside their mold covered bedroom window at the Walnut Creek Apartments on Jennings Ave. in Santa Rosa. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Substandard housing has emerged as a key issue in Sonoma County races for elected office since The Press Democrat published a four-part series investigating the prevalence of substandard housing across the county, its impact on people who are stuck living in squalid conditions, and shortfalls in the framework of local government that has allowed the problems to persist.

Our series, complete with an interactive map and timeline documenting the problem, has inspired calls for action. Earlier this year, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved a plan to come up with solutions to address code enforcement problems and shortfalls the paper identified in county departments as well the private sector, including short-staffed departments, ballooning caseloads and landlords who skirt the rules.

County supervisors this year will contemplate various possible policies, including enacting rent control, creating “just cause” eviction policies and other tenant protections.

“This was an issue 30 years ago, and it’s an ever-growing one today,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman Efren Carrillo, adding that the county must “add additional protections to tenants facing a rogue landlord who is not taking care of their building.”

The series exposed health and safety hazards in a rental housing market that regularly escapes the scrutiny of local code enforcement officers, allowing units to fall into disrepair and endangering the health and safety of tenants, with no serious repercussions.

Part of what is driving local action is a desire to increase tenant protections in a booming housing market that has driven rents up 40 percent in four years. Substandard housing also degrades the local housing stock, exacerbating the problem. As our report found: “The exact number is difficult to quantify, but hundreds of people in Sonoma County, perhaps even thousands by some estimates, live in housing so run down that it puts at risk the tenants’ health and safety, a yearlong Press Democrat investigation has found.”

The series is also spurring action in Santa Rosa, the county’s most populous city. The city has held hearings to address shortfalls we documented in the city’s code enforcement division. Other possibilities include a proactive rental inspection program, whereby the city’s housing stock is inspected at random. It could be funded by landlords, and provide a tool to encourage landlords to make repairs in a timely way.

“It’s very real,” said Santa Rosa Mayor John Sawyer. “I don’t see anyone balking.”

Other cities in Sonoma County are also grappling with how to address substandard housing problems that have grown worse in the county’s tight rental market.

This story offered a timely follow-up to an investigation this newspaper did in 2004. The stories at that time exposed a rash of code enforcement violations at rentals properties that went uninspected for years, allowing some landlords to pile up infractions without penalty. The reports led county officials to increase code enforcement fines to the maximum amount allowed under state law and grant inspectors new powers to go after offenders more aggressively.

Our editorial board also published an editorial after the series ran, writing: “We don’t know the solution. But it’s clear that greater accountability will require an investment in resources — more code enforcement officers and other officials tracking these problems and making sure repairs get done.”

Lessons learned

My major takeaways from the project revolve around timing and data gathering. I submitted public records requests in August 2015, six months before we actually published. At that point, I had already interviewed three dozen people — tenants, attorneys representing both landlords and tenants, public health experts, local doctors, national health and housing experts, code enforcement officers and local elected officials.

Gathering the data was the most challenging, but it formed the backbone of this project.

I first had to identify the same set of data that was obtainable from each of the 10 jurisdictions in the county. During pre-reporting, I spoke with city attorneys and public records custodians to find out how long getting the data would take. Then I set up interviews with code enforcement officials from every jurisdiction to find out how they went about code enforcement complaints and investigated cases.

The result was a standard California Public Records Act request submitted to city attorneys for each of the county’s nine cities and the Sonoma County office that handles code enforcement. That helped me expose shortfalls in code enforcement divisions, as well as track cases as they were under investigation.

Four months later, it became evident that I needed current data that could reveal the current extent of the problem. I focused on Santa Rosa and the county because that is where the majority of violations were. I also focused on cities that did not appear to investigate substandard housing as required by the state health and safety code, including Petaluma, Healdsburg and Sonoma – three of the county’s wealthiest cities.

After my records requests were fulfilled (a process that was helped by my pre-reporting and early interviews), I went to each code enforcement office to look through paper files. I took detailed notes of violations, dates, names, and so on. I built a hand-curated database cataloging all open investigations.

A few of the smaller cities only had a few records, so I had those emailed to me and then entered then into my database.

Along with the database (which I turned into a map), my reporting was largely informed by extensive on-the-ground reporting. I went to peoples’ homes and observed firsthand the conditions people were living in. I went to sources’ offices for face-to-face interviews. I went on ride-alongs with code enforcement officers. I went back again and again and asked more questions to push back on my hypotheses and reporting.

In daily beat reporting, this can be challenging, especially when trying to balance daily deadline pressures, but I put in extra hours and days for this and it paid off. The biggest challenge was balancing my county government reporter beat with a yearlong investigation. My editor and I had regular check-in meetings to track my progress.

The other challenge was identifying the heath consequences of such housing. I found a lack of data on health outcomes tied to substandard housing. What I couldn’t identify with data, I gathered through expert interviews and anecdotes. We were also careful to be specific, and in my reporting, say what we knew and what we didn’t.

The Press Democrat continues to track this story, including substandard housing lawsuits, policy changes and other problems faced by tenants. Click here for the full series.

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