Once you own a hammer every problem looks like a nail.

Over the past 20 years the City of Berkeley has had a number of deaths which have occurred in its rental housing stock. After each incident the response was the same: mandate inspections and charge the landlord. This rarely addresses the real problem but it is good politics.

The first was a problem of a student renting a house in North Oakland, close to the Berkeley border. His parents came from southern California to move him in. They unloaded boxes, piled some in the living room on a floor furnace and went to bed. The floor furnace was new and on a thermostat and in the middle of the night the thermostat called for heat, the furnace came on, set fire to the boxes. Three people died.

About that time insurance companies were encouraging owners to replace older floor furnaces which needed to be started by lighting a match and didn’t have overheat protection which automatically shut down the furnaces. Smoke detectors were not mandated in Oakland at that time.

An old furnace would have been perfectly safe in this situation. The Council response was to mandate more smoke detectors in every apartment and house in the city. I took out a permit to do foundation work on a small two-bedroom house with a small in-law unit. The inspector wasn’t interested in the foundations work but wanted to make sure I had seven working smoke detectors — which I did. The foundation work was signed off but never looked at.

The second incident occurred some years later when a flat-roofed building had been re-roofed, and a heater flue was clogged with debris from removing the old roof.  A resident in the building who turned on a wall heater was overcome with carbon monoxide and died. The city response was to mandate that all gas heaters/furnaces in rental property be inspected at a cost of $100 or more and that they be reinspected every five years.

A sensible solution would be to have an inspector inspect the roof/flues after the tearoff to ensure that all flues are clear and in good condition. Since roofs last on average 20 years it would have taken about 1/4th time or less for one inspector to do the tearoff inspection. After about five years the city staff no longer mandated furnace inspections which cost a good deal more than the $100 since you had to make arrangements with the tenant to get into the unit and had to be there to let the technician in to do the inspection.

In the most recent case of deaths due to balcony failure the city certainly shares the blame along with the owner and contractor for not ensuring that the building was built to plans and that the plans were adequate. Building to code doesn’t get you anything but a minimal building since the code is the least you have to do. It is not what the goal should be. Any carpenter with basic skills will tell you to use pressure treated lumber when it will be exposed to the weather. I suspect most architects also know to use pressure treated lumber and don’t specify manufactured beams which become sponges when wet.

The Council reaction to mandate inspection of all balconies doesn’t address the real problem but sounds good and puts the costs on property owners. How many decks and balconies exist in private houses that are unsafe?

Once upon a time in the past the city had inspectors that were specialists, ie, a plumbing inspector, an electrical inspector, a structural inspector etc. Those individuals were knowledgeable and helpful is my recollection.

Inspections after the fact don’t solve the problem. Being proactive and responsible is what should be going on but the city can’t mandate how workers perform because they must first meet and confer with the union who objects to improvement or additional work by city employees. You can expect more disasters in the future which could be avoided with good management.

As an aside, the city has about 1,400 employees and over 400 classifications for employees. This allows the union to argue about the slightest difference in work assignment and request additional compensation. It is an unmanageable system.

When will the council and Mayor act in the interest of citizens instead of getting in bed with developers and the unions?

As I enter my ninth decade I hope to be less concerned with the lack of responsible governance in Berkeley.

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Ted Edlin is a 50+ year resident of Berkeley, former rental property owner and an “observer of council misdeeds for many decades.”
Ted Edlin is a 50+ year resident of Berkeley, former rental property owner and an “observer of council misdeeds for many decades.”