Columbia hopes new office will improve rental inspection process

Thursday, January 7, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST
Bruce Martin, city building inspector, passes administrative assistant Julie Giboney some office supplies that were left in his truck during her move to the new Office of Neighborhood Services on Monday, Jan. 4. Giboney and volunteer coordinator Leigh Britt will be working off of folding tables until their desks arrive.




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View Neighborhood Response Team letters since 2005 in a larger map

COLUMBIA — The morning-glory-blue house at 11 Fourth Ave. has been on the city's rental property rolls for four years and has never passed an inspection.

Violations that kept the house from being certified as a rental property in 2006 include missing handrails on basement stairs, a hole in the wall of a bedroom and non-working smoke detectors, according to inspection records.

A reinspection was set for late December 2006, a month after the failed first inspection. After that, though, records become spotty. A reinspection was scheduled for Jan. 15, 2007, but according to records, the owner did not show up, so the inspector could not go inside.

The file contains a letter from a city inspector to the owner, written some time in 2007. It sets an interior reinspection for Feb. 1, 2008, and an exterior reinspection for May 1, 2008.

"It is apparent from a drive-by of the residence that little has been done since the original inspection, and I would like to finish this up since it has been over a year and is not completed," the letter says. If the new date and time was not kept, the inspector wrote, the owner would be sent to Municipal Court for the violations.

There are no records indicating that either of the rescheduled inspections were performed, and a search of Municipal Court records for the owner's name turned up no results.

Staff in the Office of Protective Inspections, which handles rental inspections, say a letter has recently been sent to the owner alerting her once again that the house was in violation of the city rental code and must be inspected.

The house is within the Neighborhood Response Team area, so each year a building inspector, health inspector, police officer and the neighborhood response coordinator examine the property for exterior code violations. Owners of homes within this area receive letters encouraging them to fix their properties if violations are found. The owner of 11 Fourth Ave. has received a letter detailing exterior violations every year for the past five years.

Bill Cantin, neighborhood response coordinator, said he thought the house was vacant. But, when he searched utility records, he discovered that utilities were turned on and in a name other than the owner's, a good indication that someone is paying rent to live there.

"That should not happen, but it has. Those are the kinds of things that I would like not to happen," Cantin said about the house being rented without a certificate of compliance, which city code requires for rental property. "If the ball gets dropped, we need to pick it up."

To get that certificate, owners must apply with the Office of Protective Inspections, pay an application fee, have the heating system inspected and pass a property maintenance code inspection.

Rental properties are also subject to citywide health codes that include provisions against tall grass, trash in yards and more. Those codes are enforced by inspectors from Environmental Health. Both departments could be targeting the same property at the same time and not know it.

That's changing. The city created the Office of Neighborhood Services to bring the varied offices involved in code enforcement under one roof. The new office, which opened Monday, signals a comprehensive effort by the city to improve the efficiency of code enforcement at the 22,723 registered rental units in Columbia.

Responsibilities are being defined and refined for the new office. The hope is that more properties will be brought up to code at a quicker pace, improving the quality of life in neighborhoods. Staff plan to train and encourage neighborhood leaders and hope to see more neighborhood associations and watches form. Eventually, members of the office hope neighbors will get involved in identifying code violations and contact the city.

"If we can't get compliance, we've got to be tougher," City Manager Bill Watkins said. Watkins explained that when progress is made on fixing property code violations, it's usually because the owner has been given additional time beyond the ordinance's requirements to finish repairs.

"I'm not sure I agree with the minuscule level of progress that was considered adequate," he said, "such as you've started to rebuild the fence in the backyard, or you've got a building permit. That's not adequate in my opinion. It seems like there are cases of that."

The new Office of Neighborhood Services combines staff from the Office of Protective Inspections, Environmental Health, Volunteer Services and the neighborhood response coordinator under one roof. A half-time attorney — city prosecutor Rose Wibbenmeyer — and a full-time police officer — Tim Thomason, who runs crime-free housing programs — are also included.

"If we can get these groups to start thinking as the other ones do as well, I hope we can do a better job," Watkins said. "We want to ensure housing stock is safe and maintained in such a way as to not be a detriment to neighbors."

The problem with tracking

The way things work now, it's surprising there aren't more cases like 11 Fourth Ave.

Paper files on rental properties reside in several large filing cabinets in the Office of Protective Inspections. Each file is assigned a number — they are not kept by address — and contains the certificate of compliance indicating the property has passed inspection, information on the heating inspection and records of inspections.

There are no electronic copies of these records. The only way to find the paper records for a given property is for a staff member to type the address into a city computer program. The program brings up a reference number for the property's file, the owner's name, the date of compliance and the date of the last inspection. Finding details about past inspections requires a trip to the filing cabinet.

Tracking cases with this system is difficult. Inspectors must keep track of follow-up appointments on their own.

Tracking data to understand trends is difficult. Though city rental property inspector Brenda Canaday said non-working smoke detectors are the most common violation, there's no easy way to back that up with statistics.

No records are kept of the number of properties that pass inspection the first time around, and Canaday estimates that she has to reinspect 80 to 85 percent of properties.

There's no easy way to identify properties that frequently have problems. Canaday and the other two inspectors can tell stories about those some of those houses; a given address might elicit a groan of recognition. The only way to identify all of those properties, though, is by going through all of the paper files.

There's no easy way to identify landlords who own those properties that frequently don't pass inspection. "If you keep an official list, you open up yourself to charges of picking on someone," Watkins said.

Records of Municipal Court property maintenance code violation cases aren't easily traceable. Wibbenmeyer said property maintenance code violations end up in court when properties are in very bad condition or when the owner does not voluntarily fix the property. 

Since 2006, 226 cases — which could be rental or owner-occupied homes — were filed as property maintenance code violations in Municipal Court. Wibbenmeyer said these cases make up a low percentage of her overall caseload of about 16,000 cases a year.

The property owner’s name is necessary for any more information on those court cases. The only way to get that name, however, is to go through all of the files at the Office of Protective Inspections.

Software could help

Switching software could mean a big change in tracking rental properties. The head of the inspection office in Lawrence, Kan., said its switch to a new software system for enforcing property codes has made quite a difference.

About nine months ago Lawrence switched to a Web-based software. Brian Jimenez, code enforcement manager, said the city has about 15,000 to 16,000 rental units. Unlike Columbia, Lawrence does not do citywide inspections. Jimenez said that option is discussed yearly but hasn’t moved forward because of budget concerns. Units that are in single-family zoning, about 2,000, are inspected every three years.

Jimenez said the software, designed by Comcate, is user-friendly and has helped in tracking trends and property history. The program keeps track of the type of violation, allowing Jimenez to easily identify the most common violation and see how many properties had that violation in any given month.

“One of the things we want to do is show how many units are code compliant three years after their initial inspection versus how many aren’t,” Jimenez said. He also said eventually he wants to be able to keep track of violations by landlord.

Other future plans in Lawrence include giving the city’s one inspector the ability to enter inspections in the field from the vehicle via computer.

“The interconnectability of it is great. When you go to a property, you are able to tell if there are any violations existing, information about recent inspections and if the property has any building permits,” Jimenez said.

Jimenez said that in the spring inspectors will be using other software, Innoprise,  as part of a citywide switch.

"I think it’s safe to say the software package will do everything Comcate does for us and most likely more," Jiminez said.

Effectiveness through communication

Software changes might be on the horizon for Columbia, but that's more of a long-term plan because of the costs involved. A new system could cost millions.

Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala said he thinks a new, paperless system would help tremendously, but the current economic climate means it might not happen.

"This is an awful time to be asking for money," Skala said. "I wish I knew all about this about three years ago, when we still had a bit of money. If we were focused on this a little bit earlier, the priorities may have shifted, because I think this is vitally important."

The new Neighborhood Services Office, though, is about much more than software issues. The word most used in discussing the department is communication.

"I felt we needed to put them all together in one building to improve communication," Watkins said.

Combining the current offices is supposed to create a coordinated effort. Every department will be aware of the goings on in every other department.

Before this, the only time these departments came together to coordinate efforts was in Neighborhood Response Team walks. Created in 1999 to address neighborhood concerns about crime and deteriorating property, the team currently patrols an area bordered by Old 63 to the east, West Boulevard to the west, Walnut and Ash streets to the south and Business Loop 70 to the north. The team also patrols East Campus, the area from Broadway in the north, Rollins Road in the south, College Avenue in the west and Hinkson Creek in the east. The team is based on the broken windows theory.

"The status of the physical environment of a neighborhood directly affects the social dynamics of that neighborhood," Cantin said. "So if a neighborhood is physically run down, if you have a lot of deteriorating structures, if you have weeds and broken down cars, it looks like it's a bad neighborhood, then it becomes a bad neighborhood. The idea behind the neighborhood response team has always been to reverse that, so by addressing that physical environment, correcting the things that are wrong through the codes that we have, the idea is that it becomes a better neighborhood, that the social dynamics improve, that the crime goes down."

The owner of a property in violation receives a letter from Cantin asking that the problem be corrected. The letters carry no legal force. Over 2,000 letters have been sent about violations at owner- or tenant-occupied homes since 2005.

If the house is a rental, letters from the response team count as a complaint, meaning the certificate of compliance cannot be renewed without an inspection.

Cantin has been making lists and compiling data for the last few years in order to measure results. He's made colored coded maps that indicate if the home in violation was owner- or tenant-occupied  and if a property was improved from years prior. Several spreadsheets contain lists of all letters sent, including when and where they were sent and for what violations.

Data shows compliance rates are increasing. Take, for example, the Benton-Stephens neighborhood. In 2008, 190 violations were found in 560 properties; about 34 percent were not in compliance. In 2009, 82 of those properties were improved. This year 169 violations were found in 568 properties, for about 30 percent not in compliance.

"When we started, almost everyone got a violation notice," Cantin said. He estimates that about 50 percent of properties were not compliant in the original response team area in 1999. "Now we have upwards of 80 percent compliance in some areas," he said.

"From a numbers standpoint, more rentals are in violation than owner-occupied, but the areas is 70 to 80 percent rental," Cantin said. "It's a numbers game."

Watkins sees the Neighborhood Services Office as a natural extension of the Neighborhood Response Team.

"The NRT has been effective. You can see it anecdotally and in the statistics," Watkins said. "I attribute that to bringing the groups together. The obvious next step was to have their offices together."

Testing it out

On Nov. 25, the Office of Neighborhood Services had a trial run of sorts. The office has been meeting weekly since October to hear presentations, learn about their changing roles and coordinate plans. In those meetings one property came up: 317 Lasalle Place.

Police had been having problems at the house for over a year, Officer Thomason said.

"It's one that came up as a problem in one of our weekly meetings," Thomason said. When the house was discussed, it was discovered that Environmental Health had an active case there. The home has also received four letters from the Neighborhood Response Team in the last five years.

The previous owner died earlier this year, Thomason said, and since then several people have been spending time in the home. The current owner is in prison, according to records Canaday tracked down. Canaday said it's difficult to prove anyone is living there full time. Canaday said she had driven by the home several times after dark and not seen any activity. It's not a rental, though, according to city records.

A search warrant is required for Protective Inspections to enter owner-occupied homes. Getting that search warrant is usually a long process; the inspector has to convince the judge that there might be interior violations based on the observable exterior violations, Canaday said. 

"We had kind of an active case," Canaday said. She mentioned the exterior had peeling paint and damaged fascia. "It wasn't enough for a search warrant," she said.

In the case of 317 Lasalle Place, Protective Inspections got some help in getting the search warrant. Police had entered the home recently, Thomason said. While there, they had taken pictures of possible code violations.

Thomason said this was not typically a part of their job, but more of this may happen in the future. Thomason said he was planning on training officers to recognize code violations when they are out on calls and report those to him.

Environmental Health also obtained a search warrant. The three groups entered the home on the same day. The Health Department towed a non-working car, Thomason said. Canaday said Protective Inspections wrote up three pages of code violations, including exposed electrical wiring, holes in walls and sanitation issues.

"There's a lot of stuff there, but there's nothing there that cannot be fixed," Canaday said.

Thomason said police found drugs, but couldn't arrest anyone because they did not know whom the drugs belonged to. Instead, Thomason sent a letter to the property owner about the drugs, letting him know that if drugs were found again on the property, the county prosecutor could file a lawsuit, evict the residents, and board the property for a year.

Canaday said the home was designated as unfit for habitation. It was supposed to be vacant by Dec. 15.

"I drive by each day I'm out on other inspections," Canaday said. "I did notice they had cleaned up the trash outside."

A reinspection is set for Feb. 2.

"We were all trying to do the same thing, but we're all separated. Our connection is through e-mail," Canaday said. "Now we have a unique unit; hopefully we'll get things done quicker."

Changes to come

Aside from efficiency, other changes might happen. Leigh Britt, neighborhood services manager, said huge issues have not been brought forward for change in the office's weekly meetings.

"There's some things we want to talk about that may lead to some changes," Britt said. She said ordinance changes might be possible, including a change in fees or the schedule of rental inspections. 

"Obviously that would be a very public process. We're going to get input from the stakeholders in that. That would include those that own rental property or anyone in the public who would want to chime in on that," Britt said.

Before changes are made, though, Britt said the office is looking to solve problems with what they have currently.

"We're talking about what are the things that we can do with our current staff, what are the things that maybe could be changed without increased fees or increased costs. Or maybe, what are some things we can do to improve the process without any ordinance changes," Britt said. "We have not talked about specifics, although that's something that we want to spend some time on."

One change might be in the number of cases sent to Municipal Court. Watkins said the inclusion of a half-time city attorney will help the office prepare court cases from the beginning if necessary.

"I don't think we've been successful in court often enough," Watkins said.

Wibbenmeyer, who will fill that position, said her involvement will allow her to determine what the best option for bringing a property into compliance is, be it prosecution or a hearing within the department.

"We're looking for the approach that will work," Wibbenmeyer said. "The way to solve the problem is to fix the issue. If (the landlord) has to pay money to the city, that's less that they have to fix the problem."

Britt agreed that the goal is to find a solution that really works for everyone: "It would not be the city's intent to go out and take citizens to court on a whim. The goal of having her on this team is to have that resource when needed. Our intent is to figure out what the best way to solve the problem. If that is through hearing or legal action, that may be, but that would not be the goal at the outset."

Already one small change has happened: A list has been made of 10 properties that are priorities. Cantin and Canaday have worked together to compile this list.

Cantin said that list includes "ones that we have decided are most in need of immediate attention."

"You know, you spend 90 percent of your time on the 2 percent of the properties that are the worst," he said. "They are active cases."

Still, all agree that simply bringing all the pieces under one roof will cause the biggest changes.

"If we're all in there together, all day working on this stuff, physically located in the same place, it's going to make a big difference," Cantin said. "We've got to get everyone talking in the same spot about the same thing."

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