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City issues first notices of intent to suspend in Repeat Offender Program

Monday, July 6, 2020 by Nina Hernandez

The city announced last week its first notices of intent to suspend in the Repeat Offender Program, which is designed to ensure that property owners or their agents keep their properties in compliance with Austin city code.

The two properties that received the notices were 2400 Wickersham Lane and 7929 Gault St. The notices outline various issues with the properties that must be corrected within 30 days of the notice. The issues include damaged siding around main electrical disconnect boxes, disconnected or damaged gutters, and broken appliances.

The Repeat Offender Program was approved by City Council back in 2013, but this part of the program has just now been implemented. The original ordinance was tweaked by Council in November 2014, and then the Austin Code Department worked to create and implement the necessary processes and procedures for identifying properties that meet the criteria.

After that, Code had to register the identified properties, conduct inspections and fully staff the program. The notices of intent to suspend were all set to go out in February, and then Covid-19 hit and the first notices were postponed.

If the two properties do not remedy the issues within 30 days, the owners could face criminal charges in Municipal Court (with fines of up to $2,000 per violation, per day), civil penalties in an administrative hearing (fines of up to $1,000 per violation, per day), suspension of site plan, permit or certificate of occupancy, civil injunctions or penalties in state court, or action with the Building and Standards Commission. Worst of all, they could lose the privilege of renting to new tenants.

Property owners may file a written complaint or commendation about an Austin Code Department officer within three days of receiving the notice.

Council Member Kathie Tovo worked extensively to get the ordinance passed in 2013. She acknowledged it’s “taking longer than any of us anticipated” to get the program up and running, and said she looks forward to discussing an upcoming city auditor’s report with her colleagues and figuring out how the program can be further strengthened.

“I think it’s great that we’re moving toward having a more vigorous program,” she said, “but those of us who have worked on it for a long time – it has taken tremendously long. I think other measures will have to be taken.”

Tovo initially wanted to pass a citywide rental registration resolution, but it didn’t have the votes to pass that iteration of Council and later evolved into the Repeat Offender Program. Tovo said one possible way to strengthen the program would be to revisit the original concept.

For the time being, the city will work under the existing program to keep landlords across the city maintaining their properties.

“If we are, as a city, taking those actions, then yes, it will send a good signal across the city,” Tovo said. “Back in 2013, we had a Code Department that was well-intentioned, working with landlords to try to effect compliance.”

Lessons from other cities, however, indicate that a stricter approach, like taking noncompliant landlords to court, sends a more powerful message.

“It will be important that the city f0llow through on that enforcement action,” Tovo said.

Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

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