CITYWIDE — “Here she comes.”
A woman wandered up to a home on Longfellow Street, muttering to herself under her breath. She saw a group of Santa Monica officials crowded around the building and took a left turn down a side alley.
The property has been vacant for almost seven years except for her and a number of other transients, causing problems for the neighbors, three of whom stand in a small bunch near the property.
They and other members of the Borderline Neighborhood have been concerned about the property for years, but calls to the police have been largely fruitless. It took a fallen wall to bring in the big guns.
Jerry Tucker and Keith Warren, two of Santa Monica’s 10 Code Compliance officers, rolled out to the property. A retaining wall had fallen outward, possibly the result of someone’s attempt to climb over it. Now, the cinderblock structure was leaning against one of the new solar-powered lights installed on Longfellow as part of an effort to make it a more sustainable street.
Two hours and a hand from members of Santa Monica Fire Department’s Urban Search and Rescue Team was all it took to clear the fallen wall and slap yellow tags on every side of the property, a warning that the property is not safe to enter.
It also gives the police the right to arrest anyone who enters in violation of the “stay clear” order.
The neighbors, needless to say, were relieved.
“We’ve all called the police so many times, we were at a standstill,” said Ellen Cooper, a neighbor who lives across from the property. “I’m so glad.”
It’s all in a day’s work for code enforcement officers, who bounce from case to case, often without the benefit of meals. The schedule became more hectic within the last year when City Hall redefined what it meant to be in Code Compliance and took it out from under the Building and Safety Division.
When Code Compliance was under Building and Safety, its officials stuck mainly to problem properties and, as one might imagine, safety issues.
Things have changed, said Joe Trujillo, the new Code Compliance manager.
“We’re enforcing everything in the municipal code,” Trujillo said.
Now, the division’s 10 officers in tan are tackling a panoply of different issues including enforcement of the two-year-old taxi cab franchise system, business licenses and sidewalk sales. They expect to take on more duties soon.
At the same time, the budget shot up from $1,420 spent in the 2010-11 fiscal year to $1,620,932 in 2012-13, according to budget documents.
The goal is to take responsibilities currently covered by individuals in a variety of different departments and bring them in house. That takes pressure off of almost every department including the police, which will get to spend more time enforcing criminal laws rather than municipal ones under the new system.
It should mean that problems get addressed faster and in better order, Trujillo said.
It also means that the officers’ caseloads just shot way, way up. Like double.
“I come in in the morning and think, ‘This is what I need to do today,’” Tucker said. It rarely works out that way, he said.
“You don’t know what the next radio call is going to be,” he said.
After the house call was cleared, Tucker and Warren were scheduled to head out to target “bandit cabs” — taxis without permission to pick up passengers in Santa Monica — and then to court to defend a previous compliance action.
If variety is the spice of life, a career in Code Compliance is downright zesty, something Trujillo has been working on with his troops.
“We’re the clearing house for issues when people don’t know who else to call,” Trujillo said.
That’s good news for the residents of the Borderline Neighborhood, who exhausted every resource to get the problem house dealt with.
Not all issues have been resolved so quickly, if you can call seven years quick.
Madelyn Tarfman, a landlord who owns a property on the east side of town, has been dealing with a problem property of her own on Yale Street for almost two decades. She succeeded in getting it knocked down, but fencing that protected the vacant lot has since been taken away.
That’s caused problems for her and her tenants, and Tarfman is afraid that what once was a vacant lot will turn into a garbage dump.
“It’s frustrating,” Tarfman said. “After 18 years, I would say they didn’t move fast enough.”
Although Trujillo couldn’t speak directly to the case of the vacant lot, he hopes Tarfman will contact the new and improved Code Compliance office.
“Since I’ve been here, one of our mottos is that once we have our teeth in a case, we don’t let go until there’s compliance at the property,” Trujillo said.