Rental Property Inspections: No Harm, No Foul?

RANCHO CORDOVA, CA (MPG)  |  By Shelly Lembke
Sort Ad 33725

For several weeks, one Rancho Cordova resident has been busy fighting city hall in an effort to resolve Rancho Cordova Code Enforcement ordinances that he feels are infringing on his Four Amendment Rights.
Michael Zechlin is currently a very unhappy resident. Several weeks ago Zechlin found a notice posted on his front door that his home had been identified by Rancho Cordova Code Enforcement (RCCE) as a rental property and had been scheduled for an inspection by a Code Enforcement officer. Zechlin phoned RCCE, explaining his house was owner occupied by him and was not a rental property. RCCE apologized and that was supposed to be the end of it.
A few days later however, Zechlin discovered a new notice from RCCE taped to his door, again stating that his home was a rental property and was scheduled for an inspection. Zechlin again contacted RCCE to remind them he lived in the home and was the owner. RCCE acknowledged the error and reiterated that it was in error and no inspection would take place. For Zechlin, this was too little too late.
“I have the right to live without fear of unreasonable search of my home or by having my privacy infringed upon.” Zechlin commented, by referencing legal precedents he has come across. He cited the Fourth Constitutional Amendment, which guarantees citizens protection from illegal search and seizure. Zechlin feels the city of Rancho Cordova has overreached legal precedent, stating his assertion that the city “has to have ‘probable cause’ to enter a home.”
What has followed is a cascade of correspondence among Zechlin, the city, Code Enforcement and Rancho Cordova City Councilmembers, venting his frustrations and fears about the handling of his case, along with questions about how and why it occurred in the first place. Zechlin has even addressed the Rancho Cordova City Council in person during one of the recent Council meetings. He remains unmoved.
“The city attempted a warrantless search of my home under threat and intimidation. Had I not made issue of it they most certainly would have pursued the matter,” Zechlin said of the incident.
“I was in fear of the city forcing their way into my home, taking legal action against me or placing a lien on my property. The fact that I was sitting at my desk and I saw someone tag the notice to my door and run made it seem even worse.”
Zechlin’s email trail indicates that city staff have acknowledged the error and offered formal apologies, but he maintains the notices were equivalent to Rancho Cordova making the assumption that he was violating code. 
City Council Member David Sander, who has been Zechlin’s primary correspondent with the city, addressed this in writing, stating: "There was never a finding that you were violating a code.  There was an assumption made that your property was a rental because publicly available data. We do not inspect single family non-rental property,” wrote Sander to Zechlin. 
According to Maria Kniestadt, the Communications and Legislative Affairs Manager for the city of Rancho Cordova, the data used by the city to identify rental properties is provided by the Sacramento County Assessor’s Office and is readily available as public information.  The county records are based on who is listed as the owner of record for individual properties throughout Sacramento County. Such information is recorded and kept for each state. Sacramento and the state of California are no exception.
He does have ideas on what the city of Rancho Cordova could do to rectify his situation and protect other residents from similar unfortunate circumstances. “There needs to be some sort of oversight for the actions that Code Enforcement takes. There are apparently no “checks and balances” to restrict their unfettered access to our homes or neighborhoods. They are enforcing codes that for the most part have no purpose other than to generate revenue for the city. Additionally, they are the authors of the codes they enforce. Yes, it is important that we have rental properties inspected, but perhaps we need to find another mechanism for identifying those places. For that matter, whatever took the place of simply talking to the home owner before making assumptions in error?”
The city, he asserts, should, “ Place Code Enforcement under the review of a third party separate of local government to audit their practices, institute a “sunset law” with respect to local ordinances that requires those ordinances over 2 years old to be reviewed by the same organization and dumped if ineffective or unreasonable to property owners (case in point the requirement to have a permit to paint your house number on the curb in front of your home).
Another  potential problem Zechlin sees is his belief that Rancho Cordova is using inspections to "generate revenue.” He cites the city budgets from 2014-2015, which indicate over $400 million in fines and forfeitures were reported.   
“We actually lose money on our code enforcement activities,” wrote Rancho Cordova Councilmember David Sander in an email to Zechlin. “Like other forms of public safety (police, fire, building inspection, animal control, etc.) there is no way to recoup what we spend.  Fees or fines are rarely assessed and rarely collected.  When they are, it is usually a large scale slumlord issue (think of the Stagger Inn, the First Value Inn, Cordova Inn, a crummy apartment complex, etc.).  So we aren’t pursuing public safety and law enforcement as a means to make money.”
According to Sander’s emails, there is a differentiation with regard to the city’s policies on rental home inspections based on legal definition. “Because this is not a criminal matter, there is no need for “probable cause” or even the finding of a code enforcement violation.  This is a business inspection of a residential rental business, to ensure that laws are being followed that the city has a legal and moral responsibility to uphold.   There is no 4th Amendment issue here as a result. Rental property owners virtually always have access rights.”
Sander continues, “Rental housing is subject to rental inspection unless the renting occupant refuses it.  It's up to the renter unless there is an obvious external sign of a life threatening situation (like a roof caving in) that requires an inside follow-up - but that is true for any property and almost never happens."