City officials say they plan to inspect all homes sold in the city in an attempt to crack down on illegal residences that have bloated the city's population and burdened city services.
The City Council on Monday proposed an ordinance, expected to be approved later this month, that would require mandatory pre-sale inspection of all houses to combat illegal additions to homes and conversions of garages into substandard apartments.
Council members said in interviews that the city can no longer afford to provide public services such as water and education to persons living illegally in the city.
The city last year had to purchase $143,000 worth of additional water for its residents. The city used enough water for 95,000 persons last year, say city officials, though the county estimated the population at about 74,000.
Similarly, schools are so overcrowded that 300 high school students are being bused to the San Fernando Valley, and next September, 250 more may be bused to Watts.
"If we don't do something, we're going to end up with wall-to-wall rooftops in the city," said Mayor Herb Cranton. "We've got to do something to protect our citizens."
With 20% of the city's 25,000 homes changing hands every year, city officials estimate they could eliminate all illegal residences in five years. The officials estimate that at present, 30% of the city's homes, or 7,500, would not pass the proposed inspections.
The teeth of the proposal comes under other city laws, which force owners of illegal residences to meet city codes at their own expense or face a misdemeanor charge carrying a penalty of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
The inspection would cost each seller $40, according to a proposal supported by four of five council members. A fifth council member, Henry Gonzalez, has submitted an alternate proposal that says the inspections should be done for free.
In interviews this week, the council members said they would approve either version of the proposed ordinance at the council's March 25 meeting.
The proposal, however, has been criticized by local real estate agents.
At public hearings, realty agents have claimed a proposed fee of $40 is too expensive in a city where an average two-bedroom home sells for $75,000. Others objected to what they called an unnecessary intrusion by government into private business.
"They're pushing this kind of fast," said Trudy Stegmaier, president of the Southeast Board of Realtors.
Stegmaier said that while such an ordinance might reduce the number of converted garages, it may be unfair to some homeowners who will be responsible for correcting violations committed by previous owners.
Another real estate agent claimed the ordinance will penalize the majority of city residents who sell their homes.
"It seems kind of senseless to take money from 10 people in order to catch three violators," said Don Jervis Sr.
After meeting with members of the Board of Realtors this month, city officials revised the proposed ordinance. When originally introduced last month, it required a fee of $50.
City officials also changed the wording of the proposed ordinance after some real estate agents complained publicly that the inspections might become a "witch hunt." They said they feared city officials would use the inspections to tour homes and issue numerous citations for violations of local building codes other than converted garages and illegal additions.
The revised ordinance, however, calls for inspections to look for "major structural additions, modifications and alterations" done without permits. The revised proposal also stipulates that the inspections be made from outside the homes.
But even with the changes, local real estate agents say they oppose the inspections.
"The next thing they'll tell you is which color to paint your house," said Don Sawyer, a local realty agent for 40 years.
The proposed ordinance carries a misdemeanor penalty for persons who do not register with the city for inspections. The violators are subject to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.