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How a Dream House Can Turn Into a Nightmare

Ursula Mitchell is a coffee shop waitress. Her husband Bill drives a truck. One day in 1988 they spotted a for-sale sign in front of a cozy tract home on a pleasant street in Mission Hills. Now, cozy is often a synonym for small. But when the Mitchells stepped inside, they were taken with its spaciousness.

“This was probably the room,” Ursula says, settling into a sofa, “that sold us the house.”

The family room was an add-on. The sellers, an elderly couple, readily acknowledged that their sons, without bothering to obtain a building permit, had worked weekends to put up three walls and a roof to enclose the old patio.

The Mitchells considered this in making an offer. They would pay $165,000 . . . if the sellers would get a permit certifying that the “bootleg” room had been built to code.

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The sellers soon obtained the “certificate of occupancy.” The Mitchells bought the house.

And so began The Nightmare on Columbus Avenue.

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The room is 25 feet wide and 16 feet deep, but it isn’t big enough to contain the Mitchells’ headaches. The “certificate of occupancy,” they soon discovered, was a product of extreme negligence at best. This room has cost the Mitchells about $25,000 in lawyers’ fees. It has probably cost taxpayers at least as much, given the labors of building inspectors, city attorneys and the courts.

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The Mitchells used to think everything was hunky-dory. Now they think the operative phrase is “hanky-panky.”

That’s the term building inspector Arkey Miller used after examining the Mitchell’s family room. A paperwork glitch, it seems, left him unaware that a colleague had already inspected the room.

Miller found a half-dozen code violations, some as obvious as electrical wiring strung across the roof and a lack of footings. The problems were such that the Department of Building and Safety conducted an internal investigation into why a permit was issued in the first place. They also told the Mitchells to fix the room at their own expense.

The Mitchells figured it was only fair that the city that issued the permit should make things right. So they sued.

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Was there hanky-panky? A confidential memo obtained by the Mitchells’ attorney, David J. Shapiro, sheds little light. It states that the inspector who wrongfully signed off on the room found “minor” problems, but concluded there was “substantial conformance” with minimum code requirements. (This same inspector, under deposition, acknowledged that the room’s code violations were major. Not unlike various White House officials in recent administrations, he seemed to suffer from extended memory gaps.)

There is no indication that the inspector was disciplined. The only result, it seems, was a general warning: “We have taken special effort to point out to our inspection staff the types of conditions later found on this job and have instructed them to look more closely for those items on any future jobs.”

Meanwhile, the process of litigation put the Mitchells through some radical mood swings.

A Superior Court judge awarded the Mitchells a default judgment of more than $100,000. This proved illusory. Deputy City Atty. Laurel Lightner, saying the city was unaware of the Mitchells’ lawsuit, persuaded the same judge that the suit was improperly served. The judge voided the award.

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Various unsuccessful efforts have been made at a settlement. The Mitchells say they just want enough to recover their attorneys’ fees and to pay a contractor to repair their home.

It doesn’t look good for the Mitchells; their lawyer acknowledges that. Shapiro is the Mitchells’ second attorney; he took over when his predecessor moved out of the area. He says he is charging the Mitchells much less than his usual fees. A former municipal lawyer, Shapiro knew that a state law shielding cities from the mistakes of building inspectors would make it hard for the Mitchells to win.

Shapiro sees it as a case in which the law is one thing, and fairness and common sense quite another. If the city had made amends with the Mitchells before lawyers became involved, it would have cost taxpayers far less.

Lightner explained the need to defend not just the city, but the legal principles. Her job is to enforce the government code, not to empathize with the Mitchells.

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When I asked her how she would feel if she were in their place, she said: “It’s unfair of you to ask that question.”

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These days, Ursula Mitchell is worried about the rain. “Winter’s coming,” she says, “and I need a new roof.” She figures it’s time to tear down the old roof and put in the extra beams to correct that code violation.

So she called the folks at Building & Safety; she wants to be sure it’s done right.

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A building permit, they told her, would cost $770.


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