City to pass the bucks on sidewalks?

Times Staff Writer

Faced with more than 4,000 miles of broken sidewalks and scarce money to make repairs, Los Angeles officials are weighing a proposal to put responsibility for making the fixes squarely on homeowners.

Under the proposal, homeowners would be forced to replace the damaged pavement -- or pay the city a fee -- when they sell their property, before the close of escrow.

The City Council’s Public Works Committee got its first look Wednesday at the “point of sale” plan, which could cost the average homeowner as much as $15 for each square foot of sidewalk, and dramatically shift the burden for such repairs from city government to the private sector.


The proposal is backed by Service Employees International Union Local 721, which said it would address a growing backlog of repairs while boosting economic development in the city.

“It’s probably the only way of addressing the problem in a comprehensive way,” said SEIU policy coordinator Teresa Sanchez, whose union represents about 11,000 city employees.

Several members of Southern California’s real estate lobby hate the idea, saying it would complicate a real estate market already gripped by foreclosures and “short sales” -- sellers unloading their property at a loss.

“To put an additional burden on property owners when they’re already suffering is pretty insensitive,” said Mel Wilson, legislative advocate for the Southland Regional Assn. of Realtors.

Los Angeles spends $9 million annually on sidewalk repairs, enough to replace a little more than 50 miles each year, said Bill Robertson, general manager of the Bureau of Street Services.

At that rate, the city will fix its current 4,600 miles of broken sidewalks around 2091, he said. Los Angeles has 6,000 additional miles of sidewalk considered in good condition.


The city also spends about $3 million annually on lawsuits and legal claims stemming from injuries blamed on uneven sidewalks.

Although city inspectors can issue citations to property owners with broken sidewalks -- forcing them to make the necessary repairs -- they have not done so since 1973.

That year the City Council passed an ordinance that said private property owners were not responsible for sidewalks damaged by tree roots.

The legal view turned out to be incorrect, and city officials began putting money toward sidewalk repairs shortly after 2000, Robertson said.

But it never recovered from the backlog that accrued over 35 years, he said.

“The question is, do we want to bear the $1.2-billion burden of those repairs, or do we want to . . . have the property owners share that cost when they sell their homes?” he asked.

The council took a stab at addressing cracked sidewalks three years ago when it created the “50-50” program, allowing homeowners to get repairs done on a priority basis as long as they paid half the cost.


That program now has its own backlog, with more than 400 property owners waiting to qualify for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Because the city spends about $7,000 to replace a sidewalk in front of the average single-family home, participants in the 50-50 program pay an average of $3,500, according to city officials.

If approved, the sidewalk plan could apply to every property owner, depending on how it is written.

Backers say the city already requires that homeowners install low-flush toilets and gas shut-off valves each time a property changes hands.

Sanchez, the policy coordinator for SEIU, said the program would allow the city to focus on other needs.

And she said the repair bill would represent a “minimal cost” to property owners.

Highland Park real estate agent Eric Toro disagreed, saying low- and middle-income buyers would find even $3,500 in repairs to be a burden.


The plan will receive another airing in 60 days.

Although Councilman Greig Smith asked for other ways of getting property owners to cover sidewalk costs, Councilman Bill Rosendahl said he was keeping an open mind.

“I think it can work,” he said.