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Azusa Considers Getting Tough on Urban Blight

Times Staff Writer

The ramshackle house had a ceiling patched with cardboard, exposed wiring and faulty plumbing that overflowed toilet and sinks with sewage, but the owner rented the one-bedroom unit to three families with eight small children.

Across town, a large apartment building not more than 800 feet from City Hall has an undersized dumpster that spills garbage into the alley.

Dotting the blocks in between are perhaps a dozen empty lots overgrown with weeds and strewn with trash.

These are the symptoms of urban blight that Azusa city officials want eliminated.

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Saying he is tired of run-down properties that in some areas resemble slums, City Administrator Julio J. Fuentes has proposed a series of ordinances that would require owners to clean up blighted real estate.

Proposals Unveiled

At a special City Council study session last week, Fuentes and the city staff unveiled proposals that would establish an inspection program for rental housing, set standards for the upkeep of property, order vacant lots cleared of debris and expand street sweeping.

Council members, agreeing that something needs to be done to spruce up the city’s image, generally favored the proposals.

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“We’re tired of our city looking like a shambles,” said Councilman Harry L. Stemrich. “We’re here to do something.”

Councilwoman Jennie Avila said she favored the substance of the proposals but thought some fine-tuning would be necessary to make them more palatable to the public.

“We need to do something if we’re going to have pride in our community,” she said. The proposals “go in the right direction, but we also need to have something that will be acceptable to the city at large.”

October Vote Seen

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Fuentes said formal proposals will come back before the council in October for possible adoption as city ordinances. He said the city’s image will continue to suffer unless property owners take an interest in cleaning up.

“We’ve got to make some effort to improve the housing stock,” Fuentes said. “We’re not asking anyone to make $100,000 or $200,000 improvements on their home; we’re just asking them to keep it up.”

The main proposal, a rental inspection program, would require landlords to pass muster from a city code inspector before renting out an apartment. The ordinance would have a significant impact since nearly half of Azusa’s housing stock is rented.

The program, similar to one in Pasadena, would hold the apartment’s utility connections hostage until the landlord received an inspection certifying that the unit met city and state codes and was clean and habitable. Of the city’s 6,000 rental units, more than 200 change hands each month, according to city staff.

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But many of the units should have never been rented, city officials said.

‘Chicken Coops’

“We’ve run into places that were originally permitted as chicken coops that people have turned into apartments,” said Dave Rudisel, the city’s senior code enforcement officer.

The program would pay for itself through a proposed $30 inspection fee that would raise an estimated $72,000 a year. Two additional code enforcement officers--who would assist the two the city already has--would cost $60,000 a year. The remaining $12,000 raised in fees would underwrite clerical and operating costs.

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Rudisel emphasized that the proposal is only in draft form. As submitted last week, it would be even tougher than Pasadena’s, mandating inspections each time a unit changes hands rather than once a year.

“There’s a lot of work that does need to be done on the ordinance to refine it and make it fair,” Rudisel said, adding that the city would like to provide a some form of rebate to landlords whose properties are consistently in good shape.

More Active Role

Currently, Rudisel said, inspectors visit a property only after the city has received complaints. The proposed ordinance would put the city in a more active role, he said, ensuring that all state and city standards are met.

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Despite what officials admit has been lax enforcement, the city has demolished more than 75 uninhabitable units during the past three years. These included the dilapidated house rented to the three families for $325 a month.

“If the rent lords are going to take the money, they’re going to have to put some back into the units . . . or we’ll make them,” Stemrich said.

A second proposal would also affect homeowners. Nine regulations would be established, involving such things as the height of lawn grass, graffiti removal and junk cars parked by residences.

Limiting Challenges

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Rudisel said such specific standards would make enforcement easier, since property owners would have trouble challenging them.

Violators could be cited as public nuisances. The city could take civil or criminal action against the owner or do the necessary cleanup and then bill the owner.

Stemrich predicted that both ordinances will be passed much as proposed.

“They put us on the City Council to look out for the well-being of 37,000 people and not just a selected few,” he said. “It’s not fair for (landlords) to have complete disregard for their neighbors.”

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Two largely undefined proposals would require upkeep of vacant lots and expand the city’s street sweeping capabilities.

Green Belt Proposed

The city staff proposed requiring a 10-foot green belt around every vacant lot and irrigation of the lot itself.

Stemrich, saying the cost of landscaping vacant lots might be excessive, instead suggested a stepped-up program of weed abatement and trash clearing. He proposed giving owners a 30-day warning to clean up their properties. If no action is taken, the property could be cleared by work crews and the owner billed.

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The last proposal would limit parking during specific times to allow for expanded street sweeping. Currently, street sweeping crews often cannot do their job because of the number of cars parked at all times during the day.

Fuentes said such a program may be tried on one of the city’s streets. If successful, it could be expanded citywide, he said.


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