San Jose's code enforcement department is struggling with a backlog in complaints due to the pandemic and a shortage in staff. File photo.
San Jose's code enforcement department is struggling with a backlog in complaints due to the pandemic and a shortage in staff. File photo.

    Steve Brashear’s frustration exploded when he called San Jose’s Code Enforcement division last year to report unpermitted construction.

    “There just seems to be a lack of responsiveness from the city on all services due to COVID,” Brashear said. While he understands spotty service in the first few months of the pandemic, he isn’t sure why his case couldn’t be resolved in a timely way.

    The division enforces parts of San Jose’s municipal code, focusing mostly on housing violations, building code violations, zoning and blight, said Deputy Director Rachel Roberts. As of Tuesday, Roberts said there are 3,525 open, unresolved complaints.

    “That is a little bit higher than we normally average,” she said, adding that it may take longer to resolve complaints depending on the issue. “For something more transient, or more blight-related… those are usually resolved pretty quickly.”

    Like other city departments, code enforcement saw its operations suffer during the pandemic. Roberts said the division was originally deemed “non-essential,” and could only conduct emergency-level inspections such as sewage leaks. Soon after, the city granted permission to conduct priority inspections, including instances 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 attached to specific programs. For example, the division’s multiple housing program, in which officials routinely inspect buildings with three or more housing units, is funded by residential occupancy permit fees.

    But Roberts said money from the general fund is important since it can be used for any purpose, such as hiring more staff to respond to complaints.

    Code enforcement is divided into two programs: general code and multiple housing. General code inspectors respond to complaints ranging from vandalism to the illegal operation of businesses.

    San Jose’s Code Enforcement division had 3,525 unresolved complaints as of May 4, according to Deputy Director Rachel Roberts. Image courtesy of the city of San Jose.

    Issues like illegal dumping are often resolved within 45 days. Zoning violations, in which a business operates where it’s not permitted, can take up to six months. Building code violations, in which someone builds a structure without a permit, can take between six months to a year to resolve.

    Brashear said he could see a link between pandemic restrictions and a rise in unpermitted construction, especially in the early days when Santa Clara County halted construction.

    “There was enough people desperate for work in that industry that they’ll do the work to keep food on the table,” Brashear said. “I can’t really blame people—if I had a family and had to make sure that they’re cared for, I would probably figure out a way to keep on working too.”

    The division enacted new tools to help resolve cases, including a video inspection service launched in November where tenants, business owners, property owners and contractors can guide inspectors through a site via Zoom.

    Exacerbating the backlog of complaints, the division also has numerous vacancies, particularly because personnel were rerouted to provide emergency services during the pandemic. There were three vacancies in the general code subdivision as of March, where there are normally 16 people staffed. There were two vacancies in the multiple housing program—normally 17 people are staffed—and three vacancies in the community development block grant program where there are normally five people staffed.

    Division Manager Oscar Carrillo said 14 inspectors deployed to the city’s Emergency Operations Center, inspecting homeless shelters and food banks, cleaning nearby encampments and reaching out to businesses to ensure COVID compliance.

    “We were basically just doing direct outreach to businesses, preemptively, before the county could cite them,” Carrillo said.

    The shortage of inspectors helps explain Brashear’s experience. He said he spoke briefly with an inspector as his case was being resolved. The process took about three months from when he first called to when he saw the unpermitted construction cease.

    “I actually saw him come to the house next door,” Brashear said. “I got the impression the code enforcement guy was just overwhelmed with too many cases.”

    Contact Sonya Herrera at [email protected] or follow @SMHsoftware on Twitter.

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