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Report: Dangerous rental properties threaten tenants, city efforts remain “inadequate”

Monday, July 27, 2015 by Jo Clifton

The city of Austin is failing to identify unsafe rental properties, failing to effectively monitor properties with repeated code violations and lacks the enforcement mechanisms needed to quickly address dangerous conditions at repeat offender properties.

Those are the conclusions of a study by members of the University of Texas Law School’s Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic who prepared the report on the Repeat Offender Program for the North Austin Civic Association.

The report is being released today, but the clinic provided advance copies to the media with the proviso that no details would appear before today. The clinic published its first report with recommendations on the same subject in 2013.

Heather Way, the director of the clinic and one of the report’s authors, said, “This report demonstrates that Austin’s efforts to combat dangerous rental properties are still inadequate. With limited oversight and no meaningful penalties from the city, Austin landlords continue to rent dangerous housing, jeopardizing the safety of tenants.”

City Council enacted the Repeat Offender Program in October 2013 in order to identify and take action against rental properties with the worst code violations.

The city had officially identified only 29 repeat offenders as of April. A repeat offender is defined as a property that has received two or more separate notices of violation within a consecutive 24-month period and whose owner fails to correct the problem within the time frame required by the code official; a property that receives five or more separate notices of violation on different days within 24 months, regardless of whether the owner corrects the problem; or a property that receives two or more citations for conditions that are “dangerous or impair habitability” within a consecutive 24-month period.

Of the 29 properties identified by the city, 69 percent are large apartment complexes with more than 50 units, according to the report. There are also two single-family properties and five duplexes in the repeat offender category. Owners of these properties are required to register with the city and pay a $100 registration fee. However, the report states that the owners of 10 of those properties failed to pay the fee.

UT researchers analyzed records for all 29 properties, including two within the boundaries of the North Austin Civic Association (bounded by Highway 183, Kramer Lane, Metric Boulevard and North Lamar Boulevard), and performed an in-depth analysis on 10 of those properties. They found that the average response time to complaints was 12.6 days, significantly longer than the average response time for other types of violations.

One of the report’s case studies details problems at 8001 West State Highway 71. In June 2013, the study says, “Code inspectors identified unsafe stairways and walkways in multiple buildings at the Settlers Creek Apartment Complex.” In July, the Code Department sent a notice of violation. A member of the Code Department called on Sept. 19, giving the owner until Sept. 24 to obtain permits to fix the violations.

The owner did not address the problems, and the Code Department sent out another series of notices in December 2013. The following month, January 2014, the Building and Standards Commission heard the case and ordered the property owner to repair the violations within 60 days or pay a penalty of $1,000 per day per building, the report says.

When a follow-up inspection was conducted in April 2014 – after a resident complained that “the second floor decking was wobbly and that the violations were still pending” – the code inspector found that the deficiencies had still not been corrected.

An inspector visited the property in October 2014 and, according to the report, discovered that “the deficiencies had still not been addressed. That is the last inspection that appears in the code logs. The code logs we received from the property state the violations had not been cleared as of April 15, 2015 – almost two years after the initial inspection and 15 months after the (Building and Standards Commission) order.”

Quoting from the Code Department’s performance measures from October 2014 to April 2015, the report says the average response time between assignment of a code complaint and initial inspection is 1.89 to 3.57 days.

“This data suggests that Code takes more time to inspect health and safety building conditions at repeat offender properties, on average, than it does other properties,” the report notes. The department is also delaying comprehensive inspections of repeat offender properties until the end of the one-year registration term and failing to register many problem properties that should qualify as repeat offenders, the UT authors say.

In addition, the report’s authors say the city should be charging repeat offenders significantly more than the $100 registration fee in order to pay for the program.

The study says, “The Repeat Offender Program imposes a strain on city resources and, ultimately, the taxpayers. Very few of the costs imposed by problem properties in Austin are paid for by the owners.”

The writers go on to say that the fees and fines “in no way reflect the city’s costs of operating the Repeat Offender Program or the time the city has spent monitoring and enforcing code violations of these properties.”

One of the big issues detailed in the study is the lack of effective monitoring of problem properties, because the city’s database “is very cumbersome and prohibits investigators from processing data and running reports efficiently. This leads to a drain on city resources and impedes the department from effectively monitoring progress toward enforcement goals,” the study reports.

In addition, the database is not synced with other government databases, creating what the researchers call “a huge impediment to information sharing, collaboration, and strategic code enforcement. For example, the city’s Municipal Court database is not synced with the Code Department’s database, making it difficult for employees in the Code Department to track the outcome and municipal court cases.”

Another issue is the lack of publicly accessible information on the Repeat Offender Program. The public is not able to obtain further information about a repeat offender property beyond the fact that a property has registered with the program.

Both Dallas and San Antonio are listed in the report as cities that provide excellent online information for the public about repeat offender properties. The report notes that Council directed the Code Department to develop such a database when it adopted the program in 2013.

Randy Teich, president of the North Austin Civic Association, which commissioned the report from the UT Center, said in a press statement, “Many rental properties in Austin continue to lack any kind of maintenance program (on buildings) where, any day, another tenant or guest could be killed because of hazardous building conditions.”

Teich noted that last month, six visiting students died when a balcony collapsed in Berkeley, California. Such catastrophes “could easily happen in Austin if the city does not take more aggressive actions to protect tenants,” he concluded.

Council Member Greg Casar, whose district includes the North Austin Civic Association neighborhoods, is ready to start working to solve the problems presented in the study. On Sunday he told the Austin Monitor that even though there is disagreement about requiring all rental properties to be registered, “there is a lot of agreement that people shouldn’t live in dangerous conditions.”

One of the most important things for Casar is “the need to prosecute those who refuse to fix really dangerous properties.” He said he wants to look at prosecution at municipal court and the possibility of hiring a community prosecutor, which Dallas uses for dangerous code violators.

The District 4 Council member also noted that a constituent who had cancer and children with asthma had required his help to get the Code Department to provide air conditioning for the constituent’s mobile home.

A city spokesperson gave the Monitor the following statement: “We’re currently unable to comment on specific aspects or conclusions until we’ve had the time to fully review their analysis but do appreciate the Civic Association’s diligence and commitment to improving the City. We’ll include their findings as yet another voice in the ongoing discussion concerning dangerous rental properties.

“It will take a collaborative effort from both the public and the City to identify and address gaps in current programs and turn them into opportunities that benefit the community at large. We look forward to taking these challenges head on to make Austin the most livable city in the country.”

Photo of downtown Austin by Madbiggie00 at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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