Reforms the Building Inspection Commission by changing the composition of the commission and requiring appointments to be confirmed by the Board of Supervisors.
Jump to SPUR’s Recommendation
What the Measure Would Do
This measure would change the composition of San Francisco’s Building Inspection Commission and the process by which appointments are confirmed. The commission manages the Department of Building Inspection and ensures that the city’s various building codes are enforced. Currently, appointments to this commission are split between the mayor (four seats) and the president of the Board of Supervisors (three seats), each of whom may appoint commissioners without additional review. Each appointment must represent a specific interest group, such as a structural engineer, residential builder or residential tenant. These commissioners are expected to further the interests of the group or profession they represent.
Proposition B would change the requirements for commissioners by ensuring that only three of the seven commissioners represent specific groups. In its review of all appointments, the board would focus on whether a candidate could demonstrate concern with tenant safety and habitability issues, partly because the Department of Building Inspection includes a large residential code enforcement team that is charged with investigating violations of various building, electrical and mechanical codes in existing buildings. Appointments from both the mayor and the board president would be confirmed by the Board of Supervisors, mirroring the appointment process for the Planning Commission.
This measure would also change the hiring process for the director of the Department of Building Inspection. Currently, the Building Inspection Commission hires and fires the department’s director. Under this measure, the mayor would select from at least three qualified candidates put forward by the commission, mirroring the hiring process for the director of the Planning Department.
In 1994, a coalition of tenant activists and residential builders put Prop. G on the ballot; that initiative created an independent Building Inspection Commission and consolidated certain functions under a new Department of Building Inspection. Tenant activists were particularly eager for the city to establish a body to oversee code violations to help ensure that existing housing was safe and decent for tenants. Opponents were concerned that the required appointment of representatives of different interest groups to the commission would result in conflicts of interest and corruption.
Creating this commission and department has often resulted in more robust code enforcement and safer buildings, which has benefitted many city residents, including tenants. However, in recent years, the department has faced numerous high-profile scandals, including some that involved department staff and Building Inspection Commission members. A former department director was charged with accepting bribes and trying to secure jobs for family members. One former commission president was sued by the city for building-code violations on a project he was building, and another past president was charged with committing building-permit fraud and stealing from clients. A senior building inspector from the department was charged with the federal crime of wire fraud and currently faces additional charges for hiding financial relationships with developers. A 2021 Controller Office’s report detailed many of these violations and demonstrated how the Department of Building Inspection lacked the necessary procedures to prevent such violations from occurring.1 Intended as a corrective to these issues, this measure aims to reduce the power of special interests and create a more transparent appointment process.
Prop. B was placed on the ballot by a unanimous vote of the Board of Supervisors. It requires a simple majority (50% plus one vote) to pass.
The possible equity impacts of this measure are unclear. If the changes to appointments result in a better-functioning Department of Building Inspection, then the measure could have a positive impact on the tenant community, which relies on the department for code enforcement. Black and Latinx households are more likely to be tenants than white households: About 77% of Black households and 76% of Latinx households are renters in San Francisco, compared with 63% of white households and 52% of Asian households.2
- This measure would add transparency to the appointments process for Building Inspection commissioners. Since public hearings would be required before the Board of Supervisors could confirm appointments, issues with potential commissioners would be more likely to come to light before commissioners are appointed.
- By reducing the number of commission seats that represent a particular interest group (from seven seats to three) and eliminating the requirement that commissioners must further the interests of the group they represent, this measure might reduce the power of special interests at the Department of Building Inspection.
- This measure would give more authority to the mayor to directly hire the department director. Because voters hold the mayor accountable for the functioning of the city, the mayor should have the authority to hire the department’s director.
- This measure would not do enough to address the numerous challenges that the Department of Building Inspection faces.
- Prop. B would give more power to the Board of Supervisors to confirm appointments. As a result, if the board and mayor were at odds, it would be more challenging for the mayor to secure confirmation for the mayor’s appointees.
Prop. B aims to reduce conflicts of interests and bring some additional transparency to a commission that has had substantial problems with corruption. It would make the director of the Department of Building Inspection more accountable to the mayor and thus to voters, even though it could make it harder for the mayor’s appointments to be confirmed because the Board of Supervisors would have the final say. While this measure might not do as much as is truly needed to address the challenges that this commission and department face, it’s a modest step in the right direction.
1 Office of the Controller, Public Integrity Review Preliminary Assessment: Department of Building Inspections Permitting and Inspections Process, September 16, 2021, https://sfcontroller.org/sites/default/files/Documents/Auditing/Public%20Integrity%20Deliverable%20%20DBI%20Permitting%20%20Inspections%20-%2009-16-21.pdf.
2 San Francisco Planning, Summary of the Draft Needs Assessment of the 2022 Housing Element, April 2021, https://www.sfhousingelement.org/system/files/pdf/replaced_HE%20Summary%20of%20Draft%20Needs%20Assessment%20April%202021.pdf.