Thursday, November 20, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

City looks to improve rental registration program

As part of an ongoing effort to beef up how the city addresses problem rental properties, City Council will consider whether to amend its rental registration program today. So far, the program has managed to capture only a handful of properties.

Code Department director Carl Smart explained that the poor showing is a result of how the current city code is written, which would change if Council members approve revised language. At Tuesday’s work session, Council Member Bill Spelman addressed the proposed changes, as well as a recent report that gets into the details of Austin’s problem properties and how the city might best deal with them.

Spelman expressed concern that the new code language “waters down our definition of a problem property to the point where a lot more properties are likely to qualify as being problems.”

Spelman worried that would limit the city’s ability to respond to the biggest problem properties. Smart disagreed, saying the new language is intended to make that ability stronger, and to improve the efficacy of the rental registration program, which currently only has 12 properties registered.

“We don’t want to water it down. We want to expand it,” said Smart.

“We’re advising that we take out the terms ‘habitability’ and ‘dangerous,’ not because we aren’t going to focus on dangerous properties … that is a priority, and will continue to be a priority,” said Smart, who explained the change would allow them to monitor and inspect more of the city’s problem properties before they spiral into dangerous situations.

“The way that it’s written now, it allows them not to take care of the things that are fairly minor, regular-type violations … and they still won’t be in the program unless they get at least five notices that are like that within a 12-month period,” said Smart.

Smart explained that his department had identified an additional 19 properties that qualified for registration since Council last addressed the problem, but “it’s still not a totally perfect system.”

Council Member Kathie Tovo thanked Smart for his responsiveness to concerns that the program was not addressing enough properties, and said that the proposed changes “looked like the right actions to take.”

In addition to the change in definitions, Smart issued a report this month that goes into detailed analysis of the program and recommended next steps.

“As I understand it, the core recommendations in your report are to create an interdepartmental team that includes legal staff and includes people from your department that will identify the top four areas in Austin that have multiple code violations … implement a pilot program to address those four areas, and after six months of implementation, tell us how it worked out,” said Spelman.

Smart affirmed that this was correct.

Spelman pointed out that this was a re-creation of the Safe Team the city had 15 years ago.

Smart said that they planned to reactivate the Safe Team, which would focus on the structural problems of properties. However, they are also planning to take that concept one step further, by looking at problems in the neighborhood more holistically. He also explained that he would include a number of departments in program, not just people from the Code Department and City Legal.

“Police department, fire department, yes,” said Smart. “Social Services, Health and Human Services, Parks Department, Public Works — a number of departments working together to address the issues in the neighborhood.”

The four areas under consideration for the pilot program are Riverside, Rundberg, St. Johns and Gracywoods.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Austin Code: Formerly known as Code Compliance, this is the city department that handles enforcement of city code violations. Its work is complaint-driven.

City of Austin Rental Registration: A shorthand for programs maintained by the City of Austin's Code Compliance Department for "bad actor" landlords. The ordinance governing the policy was first passed in 2013.

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