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Camille Harris Shares Her Legacy

“Here is what a huge difference the Institute for Justice made in Ventura, California:

“Ventura is a coastal community in Southern California, where the pressure from developers to obtain high-density property development opportunities is intense.

“When this phenomenon was coupled with financial difficulties at the city, the Code Enforcement department was instructed by the then City Manager to become ‘revenue neutral.’ In other words, code enforcement had to ‘pay their own way.’ Because of this direction and the staff’s support for high density development, Code Enforcement went on the patrol, proactively seeking out code violations where there had never been proactive enforcement in the past. The ‘low hanging fruit’ for these violations was in the older neighborhoods, which included the poorer Latino neighborhoods on the West side of town. Many had created additional living space for family members. Not surprisingly, these Latino neighborhoods had also been rezoned for much higher density.  It was not surprising that most believed Code Enforcement was a new form of eminent domain, as the poorer families would be forced to sell if they could not pay the high fines and demands to bring their homes up to current codes. One could receive a code violation for simply installing a bathroom faucet without a permit.

“As we witnessed more and more of our neighbors being cited for what we considered trumped up and meaningless violations, always in the name of ‘safety’ our community became outraged.  These were fine citizens for the most part who had no idea they had done anything wrong.  This is when we contacted Dana Berliner at the Institute for Justice. Working with us behind the scenes, we now had help with our political movement to grandfather existing properties and assure their safety at the same time.

“The City’s staff simply dug in their heels with the support of a city manager unable to see the benefits of working with the community. As the City admitted it had lost numerous permits through the years, it continued citing property owners for missing permits that may have been lost by the City itself. Ventura was also the only city in the county that turned people over to the tax collector for collection and additional penalties. This resulted in a path to foreclosure if the owner could not pay the penalties and fees and correct the supposed violations. Research showed that 40% of the people turned over to the tax collector by the city, gave up their homes voluntarily rather than be foreclosed upon.

“Under increasing political pressure, the city allowed a committee to be formed to come up with solutions. The solution the committee proposed was grandfathering with correcting of safety issues, but the city would only allow grandfathering of unpermitted second units. This was advantageous to two council members, the chair of the Planning Commission and a County Supervisor, who all had unpermitted second units. The Planning Commissioner had inherited his property with a second unit, so was in favor of limiting the grandfathering to only those who could prove the second unit existed prior to 1984. Very few others could prove that date due to an inability to locate the former owners, especially those deceased. At this point, the Institute for Justice stepped in. IJ sent a letter to the Planning Commission to be received prior to a hearing on the grandfathering issue. The letter called out the injustice of placing the burden of protecting public records on the citizens and then citing them for a missing permit when the city admitted they had lost permits. Without an audit, the city could not say whose or how many had been lost. The IJ letter was not given to the planning commissioners, to whom it was addressed, until a citizen asked about it during the meeting. At that point, it was copied and passed out by the city attorney, who disparaged the Institute for Justice as the letter was passed out.

“From that point on, the Institute was there for us. We received the highest level of legal support, and consultation, which we could never have afforded. After exhausting every political effort and the City’s even receiving a chastising report from the Ventura County Grand Jury, it was determined the only route left for us was to get a grandfathering initiative on the ballot. IJ connected us to a brilliant and courageous young lawyer, Justin Sobodash, who had clerked for IJ in the past. Attorney Sobodash drafted The Safe City Initiative, which provided for grandfathering and safety for Ventura citizens. Grandfathering is needed in most of the old cities where code enforcement has overstepped property rights. Mr. Sobodash spent many, many pro bono hours on this initiative, and wanted to continue to refine it but could not afford any more pro bono hours. The Institute for Justice and Mr. Sobodash placed our cause in the capable hands of Bill Goodwin at Morrison Foerster in San Francisco. Mr. Goodwin wrangled tirelessly with an obfuscating legal staff in Ventura, trying to get public records proving people were losing their homes due to overly onerous ticketing and collection policies. He came down to Ventura from San Francisco to meet personally with our Mayor. He believed that with some additional editing, the Safe City Initiative had a good chance of success.

“We did not foresee the code enforcement director’s next salvo, however. By fiat, he imposed modern energy code requirements on the vintage granny flats, estimated at 6,000, claiming that a state agency, HCD required it. This claim later turned out to be false. The energy code imposition made it unaffordable to legalize the thousands of granny flats in the city while making them compliant with safety codes. These affordable living units would have to be gutted and people would be on the streets if this continued. The code enforcement director blamed his decision on the HCD, but a call to the HCD revealed the HCD had nothing to do with energy codes. Then Mr. Goodwin took the situation to the California Department of Energy and a number of city attorneys around the state. The general agreement was that only safety codes were retroactive. Energy codes only applied to new buildings and replacement appliances. The finest homes in Ventura were not compliant with modern energy codes as it is a very mild climate.

“At the point, I believed I was personally targeted for retaliation with a bogus code complaint, and denial of process, Mr. Goodwin was able to get a review of my situation by a friend at Kirkland and Ellis for potential violation of my First Amendment rights.

“During this trying period, the Ventura County Grand Jury launched an investigation into the abusive practices of the Ventura Code Enforcement department and issued a scathing report validating our community’s complaints as true.

“In the end, the city mayor with whom Mr. Goodwin had met, Cheryl Heitmann, pushed through an amendment to repeal the requirement for modern energy codes on Ventura’s granny flats. We had lost seven months in the program, but it was restored and we had about six months remaining to get second units approved. At least 100 got through the program before it closed down. With the state’s new law requiring that city’s allow this form of affordable housing, Ventura still added a new requirement to which city officials who went through the program would be exempt: owners are required to remain on the property until death or sale.

“Though Ventura and many older cities in America, need grandfathering policies to assure safety and protect them from fire sale acquisitions by money hungry cities and greedy developers, at least, thanks to the Institute for Justice, many owners were able to keep their homes with second units.

“The Safe City Initiative is written and accessible for all cities that need grandfathering with safety, thanks to the Institute for Justice.”

Camille Harris, Santa Rosa, CA

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