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Neighborhood Response Team coordinator sees increase in code compliance

Thursday, December 27, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST
Bill Cantin, Neighborhood Response coordinator, stands at Ninth Street and Park Avenue with his tablet device used to record notes and take photographs. The area falls within Columbia's Neighborhood Response Team area, which was selected by City Hall to be included in a proactive neighborhood improvement program.

COLUMBIA — Bill Cantin considers sunglasses, a Samsung Galaxy tablet and comfortable shoes essential gear in his field work for the city's Office of Neighborhood Services. Cantin's job is to walk through Columbia's neighborhoods with residents to survey conditions and to ensure individual properties are up to code.

On a recent sunny afternoon, a small group of Ridgeway Neighborhood Association residents gathered with Cantin in the parking lot of AQ Beauty Supply before taking a stroll through the area. The main goals behind the walks are to encourage people to take pride in their neighborhoods, to teach them how to recognize code violations and to allow them to voice any concerns they have.

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Cantin’s official title is neighborhood response coordinator. Neighborhoods participating in the response team program are East Campus, Ridgeway, Douglass Park, Benton-Stephens and North-Central. On his walks, Cantin and his companions look for problems visible from the curb, whether there are abandoned cars in the yard or broken windows.

The Neighborhood Response Team has been active for more than 12 years. Cantin sees his job as an evolving and ongoing task. Each year, the Office of Neighborhood Services takes on more responsibility, changing the nature of Cantin’s job and allowing him to connect with more residents. He said he's been able to develop institutional knowledge that helps him better serve neighborhoods.

Cantin said he's seen significant, quantifiable progress. He attributes the success to a growing partnership among property owners, the city, nonprofits, neighborhood groups and federal programs.

“The thing I like to focus on is the property compliance,” Cantin said. “When we started with Douglass Park and Ridgeway, compliance was less than 50 percent and now with the expanded borders, it’s over 85 percent consistently.”

The Galaxy tablet is Cantin's newest tool. The city's Information Technology Department won the tablets in an online contest and made them available to other city departments. The Office of Neighborhood Services uses them to check the status of pending court cases related to code violations, to take pictures of and document possible violations as they're discovered, and to open new cases that city inspectors are immediately able to review. Information about violations and future compliance eventually will be available to the public.

Cantin was joined on the Ridgeway walk by Rebecca Schedler, president of the Ridgeway Neighborhood Association; Pat Kelley, vice president of the association; and First Ward Councilman Fred Schmidt. As the group meandered from house to house, up and down alleyways and streets, they talked about the condition of each house.

Most of the Ridgeway residences simply need a little work. An appreciation for older homes became apparent among the group as Kelley and Schedler explained the merits of each home and fondly discussed the changes that have happened in the more than 25 years that each has lived in the neighborhood.

Resisting urges to walk onto properties, the residents showed Cantin their concerns, including trash in yards and homes that need fresh paint.

Cantin looks for both environmental health and property maintenance violations.

Environmental problems are anything that occurs from the curb to the house, including weeds, trash, debris, tires, furniture, interior furniture outside the building and standing water. They also include vehicles in the driveway that are inoperable, have expired tags or are junk parts.

Property problems include peeling paint, failing gutters, broken windows, faulty deck support and deteriorating foundations.

Members of the Neighborhood Response Teams look for all of the above as they walk an area. Cantin says the program is based on the "broken window theory," which asserts that when one broken window is left in ill repair, others will soon follow — no matter the economic status of the area. As the area continues to deteriorate, crime will rise, according to James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, who postulated the theory in a 1982 article in Atlantic Monthly.

Cantin said the theory has merit. As code violations are addressed, fewer seem to occur.

“My observation has definitely been an increased neighborhood pride, more active neighborhoods and compliance in housing code issues,” Cantin said.

The city formed the Neighborhood Response Team in 1999 in an effort to address concerns about central-city neighborhoods. It includes representatives of many agencies that work together to combat issues such as illegal drug activity, trash, abandoned vehicles and dilapidated housing. The Office of Neighborhood Services leads the program.  

The response team inspects more than 3,000 homes within the First, Third and Sixth wards, according to the Office of Neighborhood Services website. More than 85 percent of those properties have no significant code violations. It focuses its efforts on two areas: the East Campus neighborhood and a central-city zone whose boundaries roughly are West Boulevard on the west, Business Loop 70 on the north, Old 63 on the east and Ash and Walnut streets on the south.

Cantin's role with the team is to serve as the liaison between city inspectors and  neighborhood associations. He also connects residents with resources through a "mini-grant" program and a neighborhood resource library, helps with the neighborhood cleanups and organizes semi-annual Neighborhood Congress meetings. 

Generally, once a complaint about a code violation is lodged, the city sends a letter to the property owner that includes a time frame for correction. A second letter goes out if the problem persists. When an environmental health issue is involved, the city can step in to abate the problem and then recoup the cost through the owner's property tax bill. Property maintenance violations are usually referred to the Municipal Court if several attempts at gaining compliance fail.

In fiscal 2012, the Office of Neighborhood Services handled 3,709 code enforcement cases that include both environmental and property maintenance issues, according to its annual report. Citizens initiated 39 percent of those cases; city staff initiated the rest. In 81 percent of the cases, owners voluntarily brought their properties into compliance.

Kelley, the Ridgeway Association vice president, said she appreciates the walks with Cantin because they allow her to show him firsthand the problems she sees in her neighborhood. She believes the tracking allowed by the Galaxy tablets are a step in the right direction, though she's not sure they've made a big difference yet.

On the recent walk, Kelley was able to point out problems with the alley behind her home. It's overgrown with bushes, and neighbors have put fence posts in the ground that keep vehicles from passing through. Cantin advised her to contact the Public Works Department for help in getting the problems fixed.

"The main goal is to get neighborhood folks talking to each other and to showcase the city's push on a culture of customer service," Cantin said.

The city is pushing for better overall better customer service, Cantin said.

Neighborhood Response Team walks have concluded for 2012. They'll resume in March and will be expanded to all areas of the city. At staff meetings, members of the Office of Neighborhood Services discuss other changes they'll make in 2013.

"One of the things we would like to improve upon is better locating those who are in code violation and pairing them with the proper resources," Cantin said.

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.


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