Operation Apartment Snoops
by Rodger Jacobs
August 1, 2002

Do you feel safe and secure in your humble domicile? When you lock the door and draw the blinds at night do you derive comfort from the knowledge that you and whatever secrets you may harbor: criminal, immoral or otherwise are safe from prying eyes? Well, if you rent an apartment, condo, or town home you may need to rethink just how private your life is in this panic-stricken, paranoia-driven, post September 11 United States of America.

We're talking about Operation Apartment Snoops a rather unimaginative euphemism I have invented for what one well-placed source on the east coast tells me is "a voluntary program" wherein the FBI and the Department of Justice (DOJ) are enlisting landlords and apartment managers across the country to take a gander inside the four walls of your rental dwelling.

"It's simply a variation of the Operations TIPS (Terrorism Information and Prevention System) program," my source says.

My introduction to Operation Apartment Snoops began two months ago when all of the tenants in the 200-plus-units building I live in received a two-week notice stating that "annual routine inspections" were to commence shortly. The notice asserted that the inspections concerned "maintenance issues."

Well, I've lived in the same apartment for three years and there have never been routine or annual inspections. In fact, the mere concept in the state of California is a violation of state civil code. The law clearly states that "There is no general right in California to carry out routine inspections of the rental unit except that a waterbed or smoke detector installation may be inspected."

Along with several other tenants I voiced an objection to this intrusion on my privacy. I even phoned the local Housing Authority Office and spoke to an inspector who assured me that it was a violation of state law but there was little, if anything, her office could do about it.

I have nothing to hide, of course. I just resent a landlord telling me that they're entering my premises whether I like it or not.

Eventually I felt it was easier to swim with the current than against it, and told my apartment manager that I actually welcomed the inspection because I have several maintenance issues that need to be addressed.

"That's not what this is for. This is strictly routine," she said. "Any maintenance issues you have need to be put in writing and brought to the office so a work order can be issued."

Okay. Whatever. So inspection day comes and a rep from the management office arrives with some little clipboard-toting dweeb I've never seen before. They take a quick look around at all of the rooms, ignore my comments about things that need to be fixed (reminding me that I have to itemize those matters and present them in writing to the manager), and they leave.

End of matter. Then several weeks later (July 15) I receive the following notice:

"We found in our annual inspections some work orders that need to be looked over or fixed in your apartment. Contact the office to set up an appointment or come by and sign an agreement allowing us to enter your apartment when you are not at home. Please contact us within a week's time or we will be serving you a 24 hour notice to come and fix the problem."

Say what? What "work orders"? I was told twice that was not the intent or purpose of the inspection.

The same evening that I received the above-mentioned notice, I sat down for an e-mail correspondence with a friend in Indiana. I expressed my annoyance at the landlord's intrusion and my friend wrote back the following:

I've certainly noticed a recent increase in the amount of government and landlord incursions into homes and apartments around here. As it stands, I've been living in the same apartment for the past four years, and since I keep the rent paid a bit ahead and don't cause problems, usually I don't have much contact with the owners. However, this summer - for the first time - they made four separate, sudden entries into everyone's apartments, ostensibly to check for code and insurance requirements.

Most troubling, given Bush's recruitment of government TIPsters, city housing officials began touring the apartments on very short notice, ostensibly to check for code violations. Interestingly enough, however, they certainly wanted to look in EVERYTHING. Closets were opened, and they evidently expected me to drain and move my waterbed, the better to "check an outlet." When I mentioned that I was a law student, that the outlet was accessible by kneeling down, and that while I had nothing to hide, I was a bit bothered by the whole conflict with the Constitution's "unreasonable searches and seizures" prohibition and would prefer they get a warrant if they wanted to open my closets or drawers, they backed off. A week later, I moved my CD storage unit out onto the balcony to vacuum and reorganize the discs. Within hours, it had been duly noted, and I got a call from the landlord asking to take it in because storing anything - especially an odd black plastic monolith - on the balcony was a code violation. So people are being watched and minor things are getting noticed, quickly.

Perhaps it is my own paranoia. Perhaps it is the fact that the apartment complex houses a lot of graduate students, many of whom are international students and not a few of whom are environmental activists (or else Arabs or Asian and thus nominally could be agents of Bush's "evil Axis" courtesy of racial profiling.)

And then several days after my pal in Indiana sent that missive, another friend in Southern Florida sent the following comments:

Just a quick and scary note - I asked around work this morning - apparently "inspections" are happening here too. One girl said "I know they're looking for anything suspicious, but I have nothing to hide, so I don't care". Isn't that a great attitude?

Supposedly the inspections are supposed to be random (profiling?) and people are being told it's to make sure that the tenant is not breaking anything in their lease. yeah, right.

Still need some convincing? Consider the following notice from the Neighborhood Services Department of the City of Glendale, California:

The City is undertaking a project to implement a city-wide systematic inspection program. All residential rental properties with two or more units will be inspected ... for common violations. All property owners and residents will receive additional information by mail. Neighborhood Services staff will post your inspection time at your building approximately two weeks in advance. We appreciate your cooperation, and look forward to working with you.

Big Brother is here, folks, all wrapped up in the guise of keeping us renters up to code. I wonder what nifty excuse city inspectors are going to come up with to intrude on the privacy of home owners next?

And to think that I mistakenly believed all these years that Orwell's "1984" was a work of fiction, not a how-to manual.

Have you received a notice in the recent past of apartment inspections that are not a part of your normal routine where you lease? If so, drop me a line at Brimmer13@excite.com.

Rodger Jacobs is a freelance journalist based in Northern California whose work has appeared in numerous publications, including Eye Magazine, Hustler, Panik, E Commerce Business News, Adam Film World, and Mind Kites.

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