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Council members question staff over code enforcement issues

Wednesday, December 4, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Members of the Council’s Health and Human Services Committee Tuesday questioned city staff over their ongoing efforts to revamp code compliance. Code enforcement has been in the spotlight since a balcony collapse at the Woodridge Apartments set off a wave of criticism after lax enforcement of safety regulations was revealed.


As Council members discussed the issue, Chris Riley and Kathie Tovo – likely to run against each other in 2014 for the District 9 Council seat – engaged in a brief back and forth over the city’s new Rental Registration Program.


“A rental registration program does no good in terms of actually solving the problems at hand,” Riley offered. “If we don’t have a mechanism for dealing with known problems, then we can register properties all day and not make any progress at all. We already know about the worst offenders in town and yet we have not managed to deal with them effectively.”


Riley then turned to the system, as he sees it. “I’ve heard our current system described as highly reactive – I’d have a hard time concurring with that characterization of our current system,” he continued. “Our system is currently simply ineffectual.”


Tovo, meanwhile, suggested that registration will work. “I don’t know that I agree that we know who the worst offenders are,” she said. “I just think there is a lot of evidence…that often the worst offenders do fly under the radar, and until we have a rental registration program, I don’t think we’ll know who those are, and the extent of the problem in terms of substandard housing in Austin.”


Council members passed a Rental Registration Program in November put forward by Council Member Bill Spelman. The program, a citywide effort that targets repeat offenders, initially hit the dais with another rental registration program proposed by Tovo. Tovo’s plan would have registered all property owners in three city neighborhoods deemed to suffer from acute problem landlord issues. She withdrew her ordinance after it became clear that she did not have enough support for its passage.


Tuesday’s discussion came as University of Texas Professor Heather Way formally presented findings from a deeply critical report she and UT students put together about problem properties. During her presentation, Way noted that the city had made some progress since the report had been finalized. Still, she said, work remains.


Council Member Mike Martinez agreed, offering some context for the problem. “To me it seems like we’re doing some great stuff…but it seems like we’re dealing with a very niche market that do this purposefully,” he said. “They are all about buying this property as cheaply as they can, and renting it for as long as they can without investing a single dime into it.”


Martinez turned to Way. “How do we catch those folks?” he asked.


Way responded, “What we found from looking at other cities is that aggressive enforcement — so they know that it’s not acceptable.”


City Code Compliance Director Carl Smart told Council members that an ordinance that would address their concerns would be forthcoming. Martinez pushed for what he saw as a key inclusion: The city’s ability to make contact with the property owner.


“That to me seems to be the very first key step that, in some cases, is the hardest step to make because we don’t get a response,” he said. “I really hope that you are thinking about putting something in the ordinance that says ‘once we’ve given you a notice to make contact with us, after a certain amount of days, if you don’t, these penalties start.”


Smart agreed that the issue was “a major issue.” He noted that he thinks that the ordinance will address that issue.


Smart told Council members that the ordinance would be ready, at the latest, by February. He said that he would be back before the Health and Human Services committee before full Council action.

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