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Code Department proposes higher fines for violations

Friday, April 7, 2017 by Jack Craver

Code violators will pay bigger fines for a number of offenses under a new ordinance that City Council is poised to approve.

Under the proposed ordinance drafted by the Code Department, the minimum fine for a first offense related to property maintenance rises dramatically, from $20 to $250. The minimum for the second offense would rise from $250 to $500 and for the third offense from $500 to $750.

Such violations generally target property owners for a range of issues that present health or safety risks. Those include dangerous or unsanitary conditions like trash and debris, tall weeds and grass, unlicensed electrical work or a lack of hot water.

The proposal would impose even higher fines on zoning violations in an ostensible attempt to target unauthorized short-term rentals. Such violations would be subject to a minimum fine of $500, while the second and third violations would cost property owners a minimum of $750 and $1,000, respectively.

The increases, explained Cora Wright, the acting director of the Code Department, were “ensuring that the fees were commensurate with the type of violations.”

While the proposal would drastically hike the minimum penalty, it is not clear that the average violator will necessarily pay more. For instance, according to Marcus Elliot, a division manager in the Code Department, the minimum fine that has been levied for a short-term rental violation is $635 – well above the existing minimum fine of $20.

Generally, property owners are given a chance to correct a violation before being cited and given a hearing before an independent hearing examiner who can assess fines, she explained. By increasing the fine levels, she said, the department hopes that property owners understand that it is “cheaper for them” to come into compliance right away.

Juliana Gonzales, executive director of the Austin Tenants’ Council, expressed concerns about persistently negligent property owners, including those on the city’s “repeat offender” list. Owners are placed on the list based on a formula that takes into account the quantity and severity of their offenses.

While the city last year raised the annual fee that repeat offenders must pay as long as they are on the list from $100 to $254, it still does not provide enough incentive to get off the list, she said.

Asked to approve the proposal Thursday, Council members largely supported the idea of cracking down on violations that put tenants at risk, but some were concerned that stiff minimum penalties may end up hurting low-income homeowners.

Neighborhood activist David King, for instance, urged Council to look into whether violations were driving gentrification by displacing residents who may struggle to pay for necessary repairs on their homes.

“We don’t know that that’s happening in Austin,” he said. “I hope that the Office of Equity is looking into this.”

Council Member Ellen Troxclair offered an amendment to keep the fines for nonzoning violations at their current levels, while Council Member Greg Casar countered with an amendment that would allow the independent hearing examiner to impose fines lower than the prescribed minimum if the violator’s income is below 60 percent of the area median family income.

“I just fundamentally think that we should not be levying fines against people who can’t pay,” he said.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo said she would support a provision that takes into account income when assessing fines but remained concerned that it could be exploited, particularly by owners of short-term rental properties.

Council Member Leslie Pool also offered an amendment to lower the fine charged to property owners for unsanitary conditions if they are determined to be too poor to pay the full fine and address the violation within 30 days.

Amidst confusion over the various amendments, Council opted to postpone action on the proposed ordinance until next week’s meeting.

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