Got pests? Open data project reveals housing code violation data

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Thanks to a handy new online platform created by the city’s Department of Public Health, in collaboration with the Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation and Code for America, you can now determine whether the rental you’re eyeing is moldy, pest-ridden, or otherwise hazardous to your health – before signing a lease.

Investigating a potential landlord’s track record is just one application for the House Facts data set, an open data tool rolled out six months ago that instantly provides building owners’ names, code violation data, property assessment information and other relevant information associated with San Francisco addresses, all in one place.

Let’s say, for example, you were contemplating paying $1,650 a month to inhabit a 300-square-foot studio, right in the center of the Tenderloin. Now there’s a bargain in a red hot housing market! 

But before you get all excited and drain your bank account to plunk down a security deposit, surf on over to HouseFacts and punch in the building address. With this simple search, you might discover that this building has undergone inspection by city agencies a grand total of 73 times, most recently 11 months ago, with a total of 23 violations recorded.

Skim the list of violations and you’ll notice the words “rodents,” “insects,” “unsanitary conditions,” and even (big red flag here!) “biohazards (human feces).”

As they say, knowledge is power.

To be fair, some of those violations were recorded practically an eternity ago, and things could well have been cleaned up since – but having instant access to these track records could prove to be a check against negligent landlords.

 

A map of housing inspection data prepared by DPH.

The initiative to develop a uniform format and open platform for San Francisco housing inspection data was spearheaded under the environmental health division of the Department of Public Health in collaboration with city government’s growing tech innovation wing, and it’s now being emulated by several other cities nationwide.

DPH’s former Environmental Health Director, Dr. Rajiv Bhatia – who recently resigned after being targeted with a mysterious investigation that resulted in no findings of misconduct – was instrumental in advancing the open-data project under the Program on Health, Equity and Sustainability.

“We decided releasing this data would have the potential to improve government regulation,” notes Cyndy Comerford, manager of planning and fiscal policy in the environmental health division, who’s continued to move it forward since Bhatia’s departure. “Within San Francisco, there are many people who live in dilapidated and poor housing.” 

Residences plagued with rodents, cockroach infestations, lead, or mold present higher risks for health afflictions, such as allergies, respiratory conditions or cancer.

The enhanced transparency can strengthen code compliance and lead to an overall reduction in medical costs for preventable conditions, Comerford said.

Slumlords, beware: The tool has also been implemented at a time when the city is signaling that more aggressive code enforcement is on the horizon.

At the Jan. 7 Board of Supervisors meeting, Sups. Scott Wiener and Malia Cohen called for a hearing to get a better handle on building code enforcement.

“There’s not really any clear procedure for when these cases are closed, or how they’re closed,” said Jeff Cretan, a legislative aide for Sup. Scott Wiener.

“Our complicated code inspection system lacks sufficient coordination and communication among the different departments,” Wiener noted in a statement. “In addition, departments sometimes appear to be reluctant to pursue enforcement due to budget concerns.”

While the health department’s actions seem geared toward preventing ailments arising from poor housing conditions, the supervisors’ effort seems to stem from a quality-of-life concern. Cretan said his office regularly receives complaints from “really wired-in, aggressive Noe Valley neighbors.” He added, “People will call because they’re worried about hoarders.”

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