written by
Pam McElroy

Chief Housing Inspector James Sanbonmatsu
talks about happy landlord-tenant relationships, the Code Enforcement Outreach Program, and how the
Department of Building Inspection keeps the city safe.

With twenty-two years at the Department of Building Inspection under his belt and communications professors for parents, James Sanbonmatsu knows a thing or two about successful landlord-tenant relationships. From the Code Enforcement Community Outreach Program to wood rot and San Francisco ADUs, read on for advice from DBI’s newly promoted chief housing inspector.

Our exclusive interview with James Sanbonmatsu (with William Strawn, DBI’s manager, legislative & public affairs), edited for space and clarity, begins below.

Pam McElroy: I hear congratulations are in order! You’ve been with the Department of Building Inspection for quite some time, and your promotion was just announced.

James Sanbonmatsu: I was named chief housing inspector last week, and I’ve been with the Department for twenty-two years.

McElroy: What do you expect from this transition? What will your day-to-day look like in your new role?

Sanbonmatsu: We do our best to maintain a minimum standard of habitability throughout all the rental properties in town, and we get a lot of calls, we’re conscientious in trying to follow up on everything that comes to us, and were also involved in policy. We get a lot of requests from the board, from the Mayor’s Office, all the latest events sometimes come back to us, whether it’s fire—like the Ghost Ship tragedy—or legalizing in-law units, heat, hot water, all kinds of things.

McElroy: How did the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland effect your operation here in San Francisco?

Sanbonmatsu: After the ghost ship fire, there were a lot of reverberations within San Francisco. Artists were concerned that they would be displaced. There were a lot of immigrant communities affected by people who were living in unauthorized spaces. There were some people who tried to take advantage of the situation, some unscrupulous developers and master tenants, running all kinds of crazy schemes, taking advantage of people. We always do our best to minimize displacement and keep everybody safe.

McElroy: In an ideal situation, how should the process work? Is it better for people to immediately file complaints, so DBI is involved from the start? Or do you prefer that people first try to work their problems out on their own?

Sanbonmatsu: We always would like to see people work things out on their own. It’s one of the reasons we created the Code Enforcement Outreach Program [CEOP]. CEOP is an initiative I started with San Francisco Apartment Association Director Janan New that has grown and grown over the last twenty years. The idea is to bring people together, without having to involve the government.

When a complaint comes in through CEOP, the tenant is encouraged to contact the owner of the building first. Sometimes CEOP will write a letter on behalf of the tenant to the owner, but this happens prior to anyone contacting the government. Sometimes CEOP will—if the case is appropriate—contact the SFAA, so that groups are working on both sides, to mediate, and deal with whatever the issues are.

We find a lot of times the issues arise because of poor communication, which is not something that DBI needs to be involved in. There have been thousands of these cases, and the program has been very successful.

McElroy: How did you first become interested in this type of mediation?

Sanbonmatsu: My father was a professor of communications, and my mother was also a professor of communications. They used to teach about communication in ways that aren’t commonly thought of—like nonverbal communication, male/female communication, communication within business structures. My dad had a class called the Z theory, which looked at Japanese companies, how they would have councils of their staff—sort of an informal structure where people at different points in the hierarchy would come together to talk about ways to be more efficient.

McElroy: Do you think if landlords and tenants learned to communicate better, larger problems, like lawsuits and evictions, could be avoided?

Sanbonmatsu: Yes. I think that CEOP was a very unconventional way to break the communication barrier down, to avoid a small problem quickly turning into a standoff. Suddenly, landlords and tenants were going through lawyers and there was so much money being put out.

When communication improves, it’s amazing how much easier things can get. We should value the relationship between the landlord and the tenant; it’s one of the most important relationships you can have in this city. If you don’t value it, then you might not last very long here.

The other person should always be kept in mind, as you make various decisions. For example, how is this going to affect this relationship? We try to educate people on both sides. We’ve reached out to thousands and thousands of people over the years.

McElroy: What is your favorite part of working for the Department of Building Inspection?

Sanbonmatsu: My favorite part of the job is seeing a tangible result. There are times when we go into a building and find a horrible situation, but when we leave it’s been fixed and people are happy. It’s great to see something actually changed, that you made a difference. A lot of people deal with policy or different abstract things and they don’t get to see a tangible result, a physical result that you can see and touch.

I also enjoy working with the Code Enforcement Community Outreach Program. And I really appreciate the SFAA, because they’re invaluable.
They’re a great organization, for 100 years— not many groups in town that can say that. They were part of the Civil Rights Movement.

McElroy: What is your least favorite part of the job?

Sanbonmatsu: When people call with unreasonable requests and then won’t take “no” for an answer.

McElroy: Can you give an example of an unreasonable request?

Sanbonmatsu: A request that just doesn’t fall under our department. People will call us with noise complaints, for example. They might try other agencies first and not get help, so then they call us because we answer our phones. We’re one of the few agencies that answers the phone every day during business hours. There’s a live operator every day.

This fact may sometimes encourage people to file more and more complaints about things we can’t do anything about. Or sometimes people call because they are lonely. We get more calls around the holidays.

McElroy: What is the most common code violation or mistake building owners make that you think they could easily avoid?

Sanbonmatsu: Wood root. In San Francisco, it’s common to see wooden stairs on the rears of buildings, especially midsized and smaller rental buildings. I recommend just taking a pen and sticking it in the wood every six months. If your pen doesn’t go through the wood, you’ll know your stairs are safe and that you don’t have any liabilities if someone falls or there is an accident.

Also, fire safety. Get a quality alarm licensing company to check your fire alarm system and fire escapes every year.

McElroy: How do you work with the San Francisco Fire Department? Does DBI take part in writing fire code?

Sanbonmatsu: No, but we work with water intrusion. The drought is over, and now that it is raining, we’re getting more calls. The leaks that weren’t taken care of are leaking again. When a leak isn’t addressed, it gets worse and often costs more to repair. It’s in a building owner’s best interest to deal with leaks right away. It’s not healthy for people to live in leaky units. We want everybody to be warm and dry through the winter.

McElroy: The ADU process has been ironed out since the legislation first passed. How do you think it’s improved? Are there parts of the process that still need improvement?

Sanbonmatsu: Inlaw units are a long-standing San Francisco tradition. I remember—going back to the 90s—when Supervisor Mable Tang had legislation to legalize inlaws and that was defeated. And then there were three or four different attempts over many years that never passed. Over the last five to six years, it’s changed. You don’t really see the opponents to it anymore.

Inlaw units are a huge supply of affordable housing. There’s a limited amount of space in San Francisco. It makes all the sense in the world to legalize these things, make sure they’re safe, and bring them into the fold of legitimate housing for people. It helps people on all sides of the equation, because they’re not all the same and sometimes you do see a safety situation and you want to make sure that they’re all safe.

So, now you have Mayor Breed fast tracking the ADUs, which is great, and I think we’ve had like 100 in the last quarter.

William Strawn: I think the interesting thing statistically about that whole program is that about 900 applications have come in since 2014. There are slightly fewer than 100 that have actually been constructed, and we don’t really know quite the reason for that because we have issued almost 300 permits.

So, in some cases, people are still working through what it takes to do the construction. Some of them are somewhat complicated, they may be in the middle of a block, for example. But yes, Mayor Breed has really done a good job of making a primary source of affordable housing and trying to get all the departments coordinated to expedite the process.

Sanbonmatsu: It’s sort of like a puzzle, and slowly all the pieces have been coming together.

McElroy: What advice do you have for people considering an ADU?

Sanbonmatsu: Hire somebody who’s done it before. Sometimes people can be taken advantage of if they just go with the cheapest contractor. Find someone who has a good track record, who’s giving you value, and it benefits everybody.

McElroy: What is one story you think that all building owners can learn from, in your experience?

Sanbonmatsu: There was a tenant who lived in an SRO [single resident occupancy], a residential hotel, and he had some mental stability issues. He filed a lot of complaints with us about his room. The room had been illegally constructed, and he would call us and call us; he wanted us to write up different things in his room, like a tiny strip of mold on the wall, behind the bed, underneath a built-in cabinet, that you had to get down on your hands and knees and stick your head under the bed to see it.

So, our inspector did that. We had two inspectors. The first one, he didn’t like, so we sent a second person who specializes in working with people who have mental disabilities. And so, he stuck his head under the bed, saw the mold and wrote up the mold. The landlord responded and cleaned the mold, but then the tenant kept calling with other complaints. He called about ventilation; he said he had to keep his door open all the time because there wasn’t enough ventilation in his room.

Let’s go back to the fact that his room was not supposed to be a room that someone was living in. We tried to get our outreach staff out there to communicate, but he refused to talk to them. He would call us up and we could have set the phone down for half an hour, leave the room, go do ten other things, and come back, and he’d still be going without having noticed that the person on the other end had left.

We also have a person in the Excelsior who calls all the time complaining about her neighbors. She has probably filed complaints on twenty different houses in her neighborhood. This fence has a little bit of peeling paint, or she doesn’t like the way something looks, she accuses us of not doing our jobs.

McElroy: Does DBI respond to every call that comes in?

Sanbonmatsu: We are required to go out and respond to everybody who calls us. Those examples are not necessarily extraordinary: we get calls like those on a regular basis. The people who work for the city are getting pressured all the time from various directions. We handle all the callers the best we can. So, when you get a letter in the mail from us, we may be responding to a complaint, but we’re looking out for the best interest of everybody, including the owners.

Owners provide a very valuable service. You can’t be a tenant in this city without having a landlord. Landlord’s also need tenants to have their business. Both groups need each other. We’re here to help smooth things out and help people get along better, make sure everybody is safe. Owners are a very important segment of the community, and we’re doing our best to balance everything.

Pam McElroy is the editor of SF Apartment Magazine.