COLUMBIA — On Wednesday morning, four city officials made their way down Mikel Street in central Columbia.
The four, appearing out of place in the quiet, sunlit neighborhood, meandered down the wide street, pausing occasionally to get a closer look at homes along the roadside. They pointed, chatted and took notes. Once or twice, a car drove by. Occasionally, the police officer in the group, Tim Thomason, stuck a red citation notice under the windshield wiper of a car with an expired license.
It was the Neighborhood Response Team’s second inspection of the year, and the group was searching for city code violations affecting the health and aesthetic quality of the neighborhood. Team coordinator Bill Cantin said the program, which started its walking inspections in 2000, works to make Columbia neighborhoods better places to live, with lower crime rates and more community involvement.
“There’s a thing called the broken windows theory that says that if you have a neighborhood that’s in decline, then people won’t take ownership in the neighborhood, and things like crime will grow,” Cantin said. “By correcting the maintenance code and health code violations, we hope to help people take ownership of their neighborhood, and things like crime will decrease.”
The response team each year goes from neighborhood to neighborhood on Wednesdays from March until late fall letting residents know if their homes are not up to city standards. Only those violations that can be seen from the street are recorded. Common violations include peeling paint, deteriorated roofs and grass or weeds that are too high.
On Wednesday’s walk, Cantin stopped in front of a small home with gray siding.
“See, there’s a little bit of peeling paint right there,” he said, pointing at the home. “Technically, you’re not supposed to have any peeling paint at all. We’re not going to send them a letter because that’s not reasonable. But if all of the paint was peeling off and there was a hole in the roof, they’re going to get a letter.”
Cantin said that was one of the changes made to the program in the past few years. While the team used to send homeowners letters for minor violations, the group now focuses on homes that have multiple and severe violations.
“Basically what that means is we actually have less citations that go out, but the reason is that we’re going after the real problems,” Cantin said. The approach saves time and resources.
In an effort to avoid surprising residents with citations, the response team has started hanging notices on doorknobs before it inspects a neighborhood. It used to send out courtesy letters. The yellow door hangers list common code violations, contact information for the Office of Neighborhood Services and limited details concerning programs that are available to help residents pay for and complete repairs.
Still, the response team's communication could be better, some Columbia residents who have received citations think. Peter Byger, who was cited for an expired license plate, said the team's approach lacks a personal touch.
“They come around and leave notices, making judgments about your property without any background or context or information,” Byger said. “There’s really no attempt to make contact with people. It’s all very nonhuman, and the taste that they leave behind is not good, as far as I’m concerned.”
Byger, a Benton-Stephens resident, said his neighborhood has a lot of older houses that are falling apart and a lot of people who can’t afford to fix them.
“We’re trying hard to keep everything up, but it’s just a losing battle,” Byger said. “It’s expensive, though. You have to spend a lot of money taking care of your house, and then to top it off, here’s this group who walks around with the attitude of, ‘We’re going to put you in your place,’ and it’s just not useful.”
Byger said he had not heard about city programs that help pay for corrections of code violations. He said he would appreciate the team trying to contact residents face to face.
“(The way they conduct inspections) frightens people and alienates people,” Byger said.
Robert Swope, another Benton-Stephens resident, was notified last year that he needed to fix part of the sidewalk in front of his home. The roots of a large tree had pushed the sidewalk up, causing it to crack and make the path uneven. Although he had cut the tree down before he received the notice, the sidewalk problem remained.
“I didn’t do anything with it because I didn’t know how the hell to deal with it,” Swope said. “So I got a letter from this organization saying that my sidewalk was in need of repair, and I needed to take care of it. They gave me a date to have it done by.”
Swope received another notice. Eventually, when he was having another part of his house worked on, he asked the construction workers if they knew how to repair the sidewalk. They fixed the problem.
“We’re actually working on putting together a volunteer position that can help answer those kinds of questions,” Cantin said of Swope’s situation. “We’ll have someone we can call and say, 'Hey, go talk to this guy, and help him address this issue.'”
Cantin said he is always happy to talk with residents and accommodate their circumstances as much as possible.
“We really just work with folks because even when the notice goes out and says that you have 90 days to fix that roof, and they call us up within a month and ask for some more time, we work with them …," Cantin said. "You know, we can always do a better job, that’s for sure. We try and work with them.”
Cantin said the response team tries to avoid prosecuting people.
“That’s not the most efficient way to deal with it because then it can go disappear in the court for months and months and months,” Cantin said. “The whole time, the house just sits there, and that doesn’t do anybody any good."
Many residents of neighborhoods the team inspects like the program, Cantin said.
“They’re generally pretty receptive to us. They’re happy that we’re doing this because most of them are compliant and are doing an excellent job.”
Dan Cullimore, a resident of North Central neighborhood, said his neighbors are encouraged by the response team's efforts.
“They see it as a way of maintaining the values of the properties that they’ve invested in,” Cullimore said. “Their perspective is that if the guy next door isn’t taking care of his property, it makes mine look bad.”
Cullimore said he favors inspiring civic responsibility in this way. “If what I’m doing affects my neighbor, I am responsible for that and vice versa,” he said.
Jay Hasheider, a Benton-Stephens resident who received a notice from the NRT last year, said he thinks the program could do a better job of letting people know about programs available to help pay for repairs. But he thinks the program as a whole is a good thing.
“I’m glad that they are doing something, because there are a lot of buildings and so forth that need to be repaired and brought up to standards,” Hasheider said.
Cantin hopes to improve a few aspects of the response team. He wants to concentrate on following up with residents to make sure code violations are taken care of and continuing to facilitate community relationships within neighborhoods.
“This whole area used to be part of the Smithton Valley Neighborhood Association,” Cantin said of the area the group inspected Wednesday morning. “But they voted themselves out of existence, unfortunately. Since then, I’ve been working on trying to identify people to get stuff started back up again.”
Cantin said the team's main goal is to keep Columbia a happy and safe place to live, work and raise a family.
“What that means is that everybody has a right to a safe neighborhood regardless of where they live,” Cantin said. “So we’re just trying to help people fix issues so that we can maintain a good neighborhood for them.”