Toxic mold, homes without heat, and rodent infestations are just a sample of the health and safety hazards reported by Oakland tenants last year.
The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit reviewed all 2,019 habitability complaints filed in 2016 and found half involved health and safety violations confirmed by code enforcement officers. Despite city rules requiring landlords to fix those issues in 30 days or less, our investigation found many landlords left tenants in slum-like conditions for months.
“Someone would go crazy dealing with these conditions,” Daneshea Montanocordoba said.
The nurse assistant moved into a $1,595-a-month, one-bedroom apartment in southeast Oakland in the summer. During one of the rainiest seasons on record, Montanocordoba realized her roof was leaking, allowing water to stream down the walls in the living room and bedroom for days. Then, as fall turned to winter, electrical issues caused more problems.
“We didn’t have a heater from Oct. 17 to Dec. 14,” Montanocordoba said. “We had to use the oven to heat up the whole house.”
She shared emails and texts showing her complaints to her landlord, including reports of a gaping hole under the front door, a dysfunctional front door lock, a leaky roof, and a razor sharp metal screen that left her with stitches in her hand.
But what broke the single mother was a broken toilet that forced Montanocordoba and her 8-year-old son to dispose of their own waste using plastic bags.
"What child has to go through that?" Montanocordoba asked.
After weeks of complaints to her landlord, AMP Properties, Montanocordoba filed a complaint with Oakland code enforcement. AMP replaced the toilet then responded with an eviction notice after Montanocordoba withheld rent.
AMP declined to comment, citing the ongoing eviction. Still, 5 months after Montanocordoba’s complaints, city inspection records showed AMP has not addressed the front lock and leaks.
"Which makes me even question the city: Why did you let [AMP Properties] leave me like this?"
Her question could be asked by thousands of tenants in Oakland. City records show that for one in four Oakland residents with a confirmed health and safety violation in their rental, inspectors never followed up to make sure problems were fixed.
"We want all of those houses to be safe and habitable," Oakland Planning and Building Department Interim Director Darin Ranelletti told NBC Bay Area. He said the city gives landlords up to 30 days to fix code violations, and if they’re life-threatening, landlords must respond immediately or the city will red-tag the property. But NBC Bay Area found Oakland landlords took more than three months on average to respond, if at all.
NBC Bay Area asked Ranelletti how some landlords are able to get away with this.
"It's a public policy issue about what's the best way to get owners to take care of their property," Ranelletti said. "Sometimes those repairs are done quickly, and sometimes they're not."
Landlords can face penalties ranging from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. Since 2014, Oakland has issued $3,754,100 in fines to landlords. It has collected roughly half, $1,983,434.
"The system would be more effective if we had additional tools," Ranelletti said. He wants his office to have the power to transfer ownership of properties owned by slumlords to a nonprofit. It is a change his office is pursuing through the state Legislature.
“We need for the city to step up to deal with those landlords,” said Oakland City Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan.
Kaplan wants the city to sue landlords who refuse to fix serious violations. The council member spoke to NBC Bay Area outside 2551 San Pablo Ave., the complex where four people died and 100 were displaced in a fire March 27. The building had a long history of safety complaints filed as recently as three weeks before the fatal fire.
"We need to make sure things are not just rights on paper but that the tenants get the services they need in reality," Kaplan said.
Both Kaplan and Ranelletti support the city's new proposed budget with funds set aside for hiring additional building inspectors. Oakland currently has nine inspectors to respond to roughly 2,000 habitability complaints each year.
Meanwhile, Montanocordoba is heading to the city’s rent adjustment board to request a rent reduction after months of living in what she calls substandard conditions with her son.
“To see my baby live like that is irritating," she said. "It can make a mama bear very frustrated.”