Code officers review housing complaints with open mind

Homes in Hollister

Since the start of 2012, Hollister code enforcement staff members have received 25 reports of substandard housing matters – with other reports coming into the county’s jurisdiction as well.

“It comes in spurts,” said Mike Chambless, the city’s code enforcement director and airport manager. “It ranges from people who live in illegally converted garages, non-converted garages and all that kind of stuff.”

Chambless said his office gets calls from police agencies, the fire department, social services, neighbors or victims reporting issues with substandard housing.

“These are very high priority calls,” he said. “Within 12 hours, someone will have been out there. Often times we respond after hours at night so it’s nice to have P.D. or fire when they call me out.”

Chambless said the first determination he and his staff members make is if the home can be brought up to code with a simple remedy, such as putting a smoke detector in, or if it is a life-threatening situation where the tenants need to be relocated immediately.

Stacey Watson, the code enforcement officer for San Benito County, said in her 15 years with the county she has seen a wide array of cases.

“During winter time and the holidays, people try to be helpful. But in the end they really end up not being helpful,” she said.

She recalled a property owner several years back who had allowed a migrant family living in a car to move into a portable shed on the property similar to the ones sold at hardware stores. The woman had been pregnant. When Watson visited the property on a referral of another agency, she found a 3-day-old baby sleeping in a red Craftsman toolbox while the parents slept on the floor.

“The property owner thought it was better to be there than sleeping in the car,” Watson said. “But he did not realize all the extension cords for a portable heater and cooking equipment were a major fire hazard.”

Safety is the main concern for code enforcement officers when they go out to assess a property. Watson noted two situations where violations led to fires and the death of the tenants. In one case, a family had an elderly mother-in-law living in a tool shed made of corrugated metal. It had a sliding glass door for an entrance with no windows. When a portable heater plugged into an extension cord caught on fire, the woman could not get out of the shed. In another, someone had set up portable travel trailers and built a wood compound around it. The person had attached a hot water heater, which exploded and caused a fire.

In severe cases that are immediate safety hazards, the county has an ordinance where it can relocate a family to a motel immediately until it can get a hold of a property owner to make changes. The city also has an ordinance that requires property owners to pay relocation fees in severe cases of neglect.

Both Watson and Chambless said in some cases, property owners are unaware of the laws.

“Some people honestly, legitimately don’t realize they are causing trouble,” Watson said. “They honestly don’t know. Whatever type of cause – substandard housing or land-use violation – we have an educational process.”

Chambless said his staff members talk with property owners, too, to let them know the laws and how to bring properties into compliance.

“My goal is compliance, hopefully through education,” he said. “But for some people that does not work. It becomes more of a law enforcement legal situation.”

While many of the referrals come from other government agencies, both the city and county enforcement offices get calls from the renters themselves.

“It is a normal thing for us to get a call about an illegal unit that was rented for six years and they had a falling out with the landlord,” Chambless said.

Watson said they do receive some calls that are retaliatory – if a landlord has started the eviction process or if a tenant is behind on rent.

“What I’ve learned over the last 15 years is that there is always two sides to every story and to remain open-minded to take the facts for what they are,” she said.

Part of what she does before she goes out to a property is look at county records to see how many building permits there are for legal dwellings and to check the assessor’s office records for the assessment of the property.

Watson said the county does have a clause so that tenants who repeatedly move into substandard housing can’t seek monetary gain from relocation over and over. She said there are also laws that punish contractors who build without permits or don’t build to standard.

The state department of consumer affairs recently updated a guide to tenants’ rights and landlords’ responsibilities.

The document is available online at

Watson said the county building and planning office has some copies as does the sheriff’s office. Watson said tenants who have a dispute with a landlord – or vice versa – that does not involve a code violation can take the dispute to civil court as well.

She said one of the best things potential tenants can do is tour a place before they rent it – “so they are aware of deficiencies before they move in.” She said for instance, those renting a home built in the 1960s with aluminum electrical wiring may find their circuits breaking when they have an abundance of appliances in use. She explained the properties have to meet the standard at the time they were built and don’t have to be brought up to code unless the property owner does a remodel or renovation that requires the present-day code.

Watson said the county and city do sometimes have grants available to help property owners bring buildings up to code and that PG&E offers rebates on some appliances. She said there are also affordable housing projects that provide options for families to get a low-cost home or rental.

“We have a lot of positive things up and coming in the community,” she said.

For those with questions or concerns about substandard housing, call the city code enforcement at 831-636-4356. For county code enforcement, call 831-637-5313.

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