Since being adopted last year, the Proactive Rental Housing Inspection Program (PRHIP) has had numerous critics claiming unfair practices and questioning its very existence, while others argue that the program is a good start but not enough. With criticism coming from all sides, the program can’t seem to satisfy anyone in the community.


The inspection program falls under the Code Enforcement Division of Long Beach Development Services and consists of 11 staff, including supervisory, clerical and field employees. The budget for the program is around $2 million, and funds come from revenue generated by the program itself. Annual inspection fees are charged to property owners and are tiered depending on the number of units a building contains. A building with four to 10 units is $230, 11 to 20 units is $260 and 21 or more units is $290.


Code Enforcement Division Officer Kurt Keating, who has been with the city for about a year and oversees PRHIP, points out that some surrounding cities such as Anaheim and Santa Ana have similar inspection programs and that Long Beach has had proactive inspections for many years.


“The city has had a housing inspection program in place for a number of years, and PHRIP was simply a codification of that,” Keating said. “The program is not new. This is a program designed to improve the quality of life and maintain the housing stock of units in our city. The overarching goal is to work with the tenants, work with the property owners and create a fair and neutral program for everybody.”


Better Housing For Long Beach (BHFLB), a new nonprofit organization composed of landlords and tenants, asserts that the ordinance is “very harmful to the community” and has made serious claims against the Code Enforcement Division. Some of the concerns about the program include targeting low-income and minority groups, excessive inspections with the hopes of forcing owners out, and even the possibility of inspectors violating tenants’ Fourth Amendment rights by entering without permission and asking for personal information.


When asked about these accusations, Keating was dumbfounded that people have already jumped to these conclusions since the codified program is only about nine months old.

“These questions are somewhat fascinating because these are the types of things that I don’t understand where they come from,” Keating said. “This is a newly adopted ordinance. We’re still working through trying to get these units inspected, and there is all of this side conversation about all of these different things that don’t exist.”


A major concern of BHFLB is the frequency of inspections, which landlords claim inspectors have said would take place every year. Keating points out that the ordinance itself uses the phrasing “periodically” and does not specify how frequent inspections will occur.


Keating added that with 7,500 properties totaling 67,500 units that fall under PRHIP, the department is hoping to be able to complete inspections within a three-year cycle. Meaning that if this goal is met, he explained, inspections would take place every three years, unless a tenant or landlord makes a request or complaint.


Another claim by some landlords and tenants is that the program has been targeting low-income and minority communities where tenants may not speak English, making it harder for them to understand why the inspectors are there and difficult for them to refuse entry to their units.


To this point, Keating responded that, per the ordinance, the city will be inspecting all rental properties with four or more units, regardless of the neighborhood or residents living in them. Keating said, “We don’t know who resides in the buildings we inspect. As this program continues forward, we will inspect all buildings.”


One of the key concerns of landlords and tenants is the violation of their Fourth Amendment rights by the city and inspectors. Landlords have cited cases in Los Angeles, where the more stringent Rent Escrow Account Program (REAP) is in effect, that involve inspectors having locksmiths pick the locks of tenants who were not home.


If a tenant refuses an inspection, the city can file for an administrative warrant. To obtain this, there is supposed to be probable cause of a violation, and once obtained, it is still illegal for the city to enter a unit when the resident is not home.


However, Keating said that PRHIP – which requires inspection of 10% of the units at each property in order for that property to be cleared – has been very successful working just on a tenant consent basis, and there has been no need to file for an administrative warrant.


“We haven’t had problems achieving a 10% threshold or verifying that a property is in compliance or out of compliance because the program looks at both. It’s not just one-sided, it’s not just there to identify issues,” Keating said. “If there are no issues, that’s wonderful. That’s the best inspection we can do. And we have not forced entry or obtained administrative warrants or anything of the like for this program.”


Keating acknowledged that within the ordinance there is no specific language in place saying that this will never happen. However, he said that creating the extraordinary circumstance of “well, it could happen” is completely unwarranted.


“I’m telling you, that is not the program goal. It has not happened, I don’t see it happening and that’s not how this program is structured,” Keating said. “This is not a REAP program. And how other cities conduct their business, their methods of operation, what they do, those questions should be posed to that operation. We haven’t done that here. We have no intention of doing that here.”


The other aspect of this concern – asking tenants for information including their names and phone numbers – has been called into question by BHFLB. Keating’s response to this was that the information is simply in the spirit of following up with tenants to ensure repairs to their units have been made.


He points out that surrendering this information, just like allowing access to their units, is completely voluntary on the part of the tenants and can be refused. In a video produced by BHFLB, these practices can be seen in action when one tenant refuses access and another refuses to give information. The inspectors are observed leaving the units without pressuring the tenants to comply.


Keating said that the goal of the program is not to have landlords at odds with the city or tenants at odds with landlords, as has been suggested. Instead, he said the city has every intention of collaborating with business owners, property owners and tenants to address any and all habitability and structural issues within the city to improve the quality of life for everyone. To do this, Keating said the division is working on getting information about the program out to the public as much as possible.


“Right now, the city is contracting with Orange County Fair Housing to provide education on our PRHIP program,” Keating said. “We appear at community fairs, we have information on the website, we interact with those individuals at the Apartment Association and Housing Long Beach on a somewhat routine basis, and we respond to questions and concerns and discuss ideas about different housing-related issues. We welcome their input.”


One bit of input by Nancy Ahlswede, the former executive director of the Apartment Association, California Southern Cities Inc., was that the city implement some sort of designation for good property owners. By having this, Ahlswede argued that landlords would be more likely to maintain their properties in order to gain this recognition, which they could use to attract tenants.


Keating reiterated that the city would not just be identifying nonresponsive landlords but also good ones, saying, “Yes, absolutely. Recognizing those folks within the community that do a good job of maintaining their properties and rewarding them through some sort of recognition or designation, I think, is an option that is worth considering and something that the city is looking at.”


Other issues that have come into question include whether PRHIP is a stepping stone toward rent control, what inspectors are actually looking for during inspections, and the proposed formation of the Code Enforcement Bureau. To the first, Keating simply said there is nothing on the table for rent control, and he echoed recent statements by Mayor Robert Garcia (refer to interview with the mayor that starts on Page 1) saying that this is not a function of the program.


Regarding claims that inspections are only meant to assess habitability issues and not “cosmetic” issues such as peeling paint or cracked grout, Keating said that such property maintenance issues could be viewed as cosmetic, but that does not change the fact that if left unattended they can cause the overall structure to deteriorate. Therefore, such issues are looked for and citations are written for violations.


However, when asked if property owners could be provided with a list of all possible infractions, Keating said that is just not possible. “The vast majority of issues are going to be habitability issue type concerns, and there could be some property maintenance issues that come up that are identified on the exterior of the building or in common areas,” he said. “But there’s no way to give a list of every single code section that could potentially be identified in a building, whether it’s single-family residential, multifamily, commercial, etc. Those would be reams of paper.”


Keating added that if landlords or tenants have specific questions on issues that could be cited, they should call the department and ask. He said the information is not a secret and is available to the public.


As for the proposed bureau, Keating pointed out that it is only a possibility since it is part of the budget that has not yet gone before the city council for approval. However, if the budget is approved and the bureau is formed, Keating said there will be no significant changes to PRHIP. He explained that it would create two divisions and is just a reorganization of personnel, not an expansion of the program.


Despite accusations against the program by community groups, Keating said the inspections are in place to help keep residents safe and healthy, and the department wants to work together with the community to make that happen.


“The city would like to build a relationship with all parties that have a vested interest in housing,” Keating said. “I welcome the opportunity to build a relationship with [Better Housing for Long Beach] or other folks who are interested in housing issues in Long Beach, whether that’s on the tenant side or the owners’ side or the realtors’ side – we’re interested in building those relationships.”


Tenants who want to request an inspection of their units are encouraged to call the city’s 24-hour inspection request hotline at 562/570-6105. Landlords and tenants may also call Code Enforcement Reporting at 562/570-6091 with any questions regarding code enforcement.

Brandon Richardson is a reporter and photojournalist for the Long Beach Post and Long Beach Business Journal.