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This story is a part of The People’s Reporter, a feature where the public can submit questions, readers vote on which questions they want answered and VOSD investigates.
The question from VOSD reader Donna McLoughlin: “Property owners are being asked to maintain and repair or replace city sidewalks adjacent to their properties. Many sidewalks in urban San Diego neighborhoods are 70-100 years old — crumbling, cracking and becoming unsafe. Property owners are not asked to fill potholes or repair streets adjacent to their properties — why sidewalks?”
To submit your question or vote on our next topic, click here.
Hundreds of requests for sidewalk repairs are submitted by residents in the city of San Diego each month. But more often than not, it’s a homeowner’s responsibility to fix broken sidewalks outside their property even though it’s the city’s legal problem if someone trips and falls on one of those same broken sidewalks.
San Diego’s City Council promised to fix the illogical policy six years ago, but still nothing has changed.
“All of the options we’ve explored, including the policies of other large California cities, have their own pros and cons,” Councilman Mark Kersey said in an email. “I have yet to see a policy that would be a perfect fit for San Diego.”
San Diego evaluated its 5,000 miles of sidewalks from 2014 to 2015 and found more than 85,000 locations with significant cracks, lumps or other problems. The city said it would need $57.2 million to cover all the maintenance and repairs.
When a Sidewalk Gets Fixed
When residents report a failing sidewalk, it’s first evaluated by a city employee. If it’s considered a hazard, city crews will “ramp” the broken area with a layer of asphalt. In the last three years, the city has ramped more than 10,000 feet of damaged sidewalk.
Next, the city determines who is responsible for the repair. The city is responsible for damage caused by parkway trees, heat expansion, utility work and grade subsidence. Homeowners are responsible for all other damage caused by age.
But there’s little incentive for property owners to get the job done. When city staff determine a homeowner is responsible for broken sidewalks, they send a Notice of Liability. Current policy does not require follow-up or enforcement efforts.
The city does offer a cost-sharing program that covers half of the expense for residents repairing at least 75 square feet of sidewalk. Last year, 43 people participated in the program, each spending on average $4,500.
Where the City Stands
The city’s independent budget analyst office issued a report last year that included how other large cities approached sidewalk maintenance.
Many followed state law allowing cities to place a lien on properties if sidewalks are not fixed by the owner. Other cities, the report said, required sidewalks to be repaired by the owner before selling a property.
In 2015, Kersey said he was inclined to support a policy that would make property owners responsible for legal problems, but only after the city helps pay to fix existing sidewalk issues.
He now says there’s no easy solution and is pushing the city to create and discuss an updated policy before the end of the year.
Voice of San Diego created a blog in 2013 called The Stumblr where residents helped us document some of the worst sidewalks in San Diego. Check it out here.