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Friday, September 08, 2006

We really can get every dwelling up to code by Andy Dawkins

We really can get every dwelling up to code
BY ANDY DAWKINS
News of the apartment fire on Sherburne Avenue on June 19 made me think of my old job —- Director of Neighborhood Improvement (aka Code Enforcement) for the City of Saint Paul. Seven people were injured in the building, which was cited for several fire code violations, including overcrowding.
This could have as easily happened under my watch because tenant overcrowding is difficult to detect. Tenants don't complain because it could result in the loss of their housing. Landlords either aren't aware of the overcrowding or like getting the rent money. Once the city suspects a problem — usually from nearby neighbors complaining — it does get rectified, because the landlord risks loss of license or rental certificate.
The fire has triggered a re-thinking of inspection programs in Mayor Chris Coleman's administration, including the joining of three inspection departments: code enforcement, fire safety and business licensing. Based on my four years of experience, here's my advice to Mayor Coleman.
There are more good landlords than bad landlords in the City, so the "carrot and stick approach" can work.
A current proposal to move to annual interior inspections for rental units will help. But it must include surprise visits on a regular basis, which is expensive. I don't think the city needs to target every single landlord. Base it on landlords who have had two to three visits to the property because of exterior violations.
Revamp the City's Housing 5000 program (former Mayor Randy Kelly's housing program) to include reduced-interest fix-up loans for good landlords. Be vigilant about charging bad landlords with what are called excessive consumption bills. This is where landlords pay the cost of repeat inspection visits caused by uncorrected problems. Insist on immediate interior inspections in these cases.
Have landlords develop a self-policing program and form "neighborhood compacts" to buy out bad landlords, as is now occurring in some neighborhoods of Milwaukee.
Many tenants do not think of the government as being on their side, so there's a lot to be gained from educating them.
Increase the use of the city's existing Tenant Remedies Action Revolving Fund and the Housing Alliance Law Office, which provides legal services for poor tenants. Once word gets out that landlords can't retaliate against tenants for requesting a city inspection, we'll make headway on the often-neglected right of every tenant to live in up-to-code housing.
Don't leave the homeowners out.
Use the City's lead-pipes replacement program as a model for low-cost repair funds for all homeowners, regardless of wealth, to get new roofs, new furnaces, up-to-code electric wiring and other needed improvements. Under the lead-pipes program, the city finances lead-pipes replacement at competitive interest rates and spreads out the payments on the owner's property tax bill.
Where indicated, help homeowners refinance their equity to preserve their asset, and take legal action against equity strippers, those preying on people in foreclosure proceedings.
For homeowners who won't fix up problems, use the excessive consumption bills to achieve compliance, just as we do with recalcitrant landlords.
Put all three inspection departments under one roof so they work as a team. Don't worry so much about technical reorganizing of the departments – in fact, get rid of the consultants and save some money.
What city inspectors need more than anything is a sense of high purpose, the belief that the administration considers their role critical in preserving affordable housing and neighborhood livability.
Saint Paul is blessed with many things — good political leadership, more good neighborhoods than deteriorating neighborhoods, and more good landlords than bad. We have some excellent tools in the "fix-up housing tool-box, " and we're a small enough city to get a handle on what's not going right.
We really can have a goal to get every dwelling, whether rental or owner-occupied, up to code. We should persevere until the goal is achieved.
Dawkins, of St. Paul, was a member of the Minnesota House from the Frogtown neighborhood from 1987 to 2002. He was a candidate for mayor of St. Paul in 1993 and served as Director of Neighborhood Improvement under former St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly. He is currently practicing law with Mansfield Tanick & Cohen and is a consultant to local governments on housing and neighborhood livability issues.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

CONSULATING! What's he doing telling other City's how they can get racketeering law suits too?

11:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In case you have not noticed, that is the way it works with govrnment. The more you screw thing up and the worse you screw them up the further you will get with your job.

11:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The city of St.Paul might very well have some good intensions, however the way I have seen it handled so far and from my personal experiance it is not a civil way of doing business or promoting small businesses within the city. The building inspectors have not had proper education to be a building inspector or an officer of law.If the care and well-being of these families is of such concern that the city wants to make each and every home be up to code, then what is the city doing to help the families they kick out of these homes to relocate? From what I know the answer is nothing. Forcing so many families out of their homes will increase crime not reduce it. If you think about it realisticly; What family that is living in a low cost rental property(or any property)is prepared to relocate in a 24 hour notice, or even 30 days? The time and cost to get into a new apartment includes; first months rent, last months rent and a security deposit in most cases. I would think under a stressfull situation as this most anyone might feel forced to commit a crime to get the needed rent money to provide for their family. That is creating crime and for situations where illegal activities are occuring and you kick them out all you have accomplished there again is nothing other then moving a problem to a new location. I am guessing this is what St.Paul refers to as success. I call it a shame. What I did with my problem was deal with it, St. Paul should do the same DEAL WITH IT. That does not mean move it.

Nancy (formerly of St.Paul)

7:38 AM  
Blogger Bob said...

This is the government all of you elected. They want to get inside your homes and write your property's up with costly code compliances. The truth, it isn't about safety folk's, this is all about bringing up property values, in the city and increasing the property tax base.

Here it is from the horses mouth, when the city is through beating up landlords with code compliances you private home owners will be next.

10:25 PM  

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