How housing code enforcement works in three cities

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Collaborator: Streetlight
Published: 10/09/2021, 2:29 PM
Edited: 10/09/2021, 2:32 PM

Written By: Mollie Bryant

(NATIONAL) Last month, when members of the Oklahoma House of Representatives met to examine the state’s landlord-tenant laws, one topic came up again and again: the Vista Shadow Mountain Apartments.

Read this story on Big If True here. 

The Tulsa complex became emblematic of poor housing conditions in the state after it was condemned in July by the city for fire and building code violations.

Vista Shadow Mountain may be an extreme example of dangerous housing conditions, but housing code violations are a perennial issue for renters and the cities and counties tasked with enforcing these regulations. spoke with renters, code enforcement workers, legal aid attorneys and tenant advocates in three cities about how their local governments deal with housing code violations in rental properties.

In New Orleans, Louisiana, an understaffed code enforcement team doesn’t physically inspect many of the complaints it receives from renters, an advocate said. In Tulsa, Oklahoma’s state law doesn’t allow property registration programs, making it impossible to require annual inspections for rental properties. And in Cleveland, Ohio, a court process allows renters to seek reduced rent or other relief when landlords aren’t making needed repairs, but it’s underused, a legal aid attorney said.

How code enforcement for housing usually works

Amid a nationwide housing crunch, many communities have aging housing stocks with rental units that are in disrepair and sometimes unsafe for tenants.

Locally, the situation looks like this, said Kendra Wise, lead program supervisor and creator of the Safe and Healthy Homes Program for the Tulsa City-County Health Department: “The last several years, you can drive around Tulsa and see that we have a housing problem. There’s all kinds of houses that look like they’re not in livable conditions, and people are living in them.”

Cities and counties enforce local housing codes, and in most places, that enforcement is prompted by a complaint, either from a renter or another source. After an inspection, property owners who violate housing codes may receive fines or be unable to lease a unit until repairs are made.

Some renter advocates argue complaint-based enforcement fails to stop the worst-offending landlords from continuing to lease unsafe, unlivable properties.

Oklahoma, Louisiana and five other states have laws that deter complaints from renters: In those places, landlords can legally evict tenants who file health or safety complaints about housing conditions.

Unable to require regular inspections, Tulsa programs instead highlight responsible landlords

Inspectors had visited Vista Shadow Mountain in the past, but the property most recently came to the city of Tulsa’s attention because the owner owed more than $100,000 in water bills.

Brant Pitchford, a supervisor in the city’s Working in Neighborhoods program, said conditions at Vista Shadow Mountain were worsened by winter storms early this year that busted the complex’s pipes. The apartment’s management made full-scale repairs to units while people were still living in them, Pitchford said, leaving tenants without ceilings, walls or floors.

“It was a little bit of a perfect storm, but it is a battle that we’ve dealt with ever since I’ve been doing this,” said Pitchford, who has worked in code enforcement for 24 years. “We don’t have a proactive way to say, ok, these are problematic rental properties and they … have to be inspected every year, every two years, every three years, or I don’t know what that magic number is, but some type of repeated process to get them in the clear and get that landlord educated.”

Some local governments require landlords to register rental properties, which gives enforcement officials information on where the units are and how to contact the owner or property manager. Those kinds of registries can be used to conduct annual inspections of rental properties.

In Oklahoma, though, a state law from 2014 blocks municipalities from creating and enforcing registration systems for properties, something the law calls “a statewide concern.”

Pitchford said the law was in response to the creation of registration programs for neglected, vacant properties in Tulsa and other cities in Oklahoma. Tulsa’s program required owners of those properties to pay a $50 fee to be listed in the registry, which contained contact information and the location for vacant, neglected properties.

Before the registry, Pitchford said, “We’d been putting dots on a map.”

“It really strengthened our ability that if we pulled up to a property that was unsecure because of squatters or someone rummaged through the house, we could find that registered agent, make a phone call and could get it secured in a day or two,” he said, adding that without the program, it usually takes 10 days.

Code enforcement officials and renter advocates hope the community can find a way to address properties that have severe, recurring violations. In the past, for example, some landlords have rented out properties that were previously condemned without making necessary repairs, Wise said, only to have the same problem, like a lack of heat, come to the department’s attention when the new renter files a complaint.

Without the ability to require annual inspections, two local housing programs offer an alternative: Voluntary inspections with incentives for landlords to participate.

The Tulsa Health Department has inspected rental properties in response to complaints since the 1950s. But Wise felt the tactics they’d always used weren’t enough to tackle the community’s poor housing conditions.

“You could just see that there were still a lot of houses around that were really not safe to be lived in, and so we decided that we wanted to … have a proactive way of inspecting properties and kind of looking at it like creating something where owners could be incentivized to provide a safe and healthy home,” she said.

When landlords sign up for the Tulsa Health Department’s Safe and Healthy Homes Program, the agency inspects their rental units before they’re occupied, looking for things like working locks, heat, electricity and plumbing. Landlords who participate can receive free lead testing and help with mice and mosquitos on the property.

“It’s a different kind of relationship between the three parties – the health department, the owner and the tenant,” Wise said. “We’re all working together.”

In 2019, the pilot program started with 1,300 rental units, but the pandemic moved that program to the back burner as the department shifted to outreach to educate renters on the coronavirus and things like now-defunct eviction bans.

After hiring a staffer to oversee the program in August, it began gearing up again last month, Wise said.

The city of Tulsa also has a similar voluntary program that launched this year. Landlords in the Gold Star Landlord Program receive inspections through the health department’s Safe and Healthy Homes Program, and they also agree to list their units on the city’s affordable housing waitlist and to participate in mediation before pursuing evictions.

Landlords who participate are eligible for grants to support repairs and cover unpaid rent.

Understaffed code enforcement and landlord retaliation deter complaints in New Orleans

Before Hurricane Ida hit Louisiana in August, New Orleans’ housing stock for low or moderate-income renters was already in poor condition, said Hannah Adams, a staff attorney for Southeast Louisiana Legal Services. Homes in the 300-year-old, majority-renter city may have gone into the storm with leaks or plumbing issues that evolved into collapsed ceilings or a rental property losing its only working toilet.

“We have hundreds of tenants living in buildings that had really poor upkeep – honestly, with decades of deferred maintenance and just really in terrible shape,” Adams said. “It was those buildings where we saw, as you might imagine, the most serious health and safety issues after Ida.”

The state lacks the affordable housing needed for residents who lost their homes to Hurricane Ida. In Louisiana’s Bayou region, for instance, parish officials have estimated 60% of homes are unsafe to live in.

“Anyone whose apartment had leaks or safety violations before the storm, the unit is now likely unlivable, and those renters are at greater risk of homelessness,” said Cashauna Hill, executive director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center. “We just have a situation where slumlords are allowed to operate with impunity because our code enforcement system depends on tenants risking their housing in order to report, and then they have to hope someone from code enforcement will go out and inspect the property.”

Hill said that most of her clients don’t contact code enforcement because they don’t want to risk losing their homes to landlord retaliation. But when renters are willing to file a complaint, Hill said it’s not guaranteed that the understaffed code enforcement department will send anyone to inspect the property.

“It happens more often than not … that no one from code enforcement will come out once a call is made and a condition is reported,” Hill said.

The city did not make code enforcement staff available for an interview, but the department responded to some questions posed by email. When asked how the department decides which complaints to respond to, the office said it investigates each complaint it receives. The department described the investigation process as notifying the property owner of the complaint, which “gives the owner an opportunity to abate alleged violations prior to scheduling a hearing.”

The office didn’t answer if it actually sends inspectors to look at the properties described in each complaint it receives.

Adams said that sometimes tenants can benefit from code enforcement proceedings.

“But just as often,” she said, “we see tenant complaints to code enforcement, code enforcement hits the landlord with some kind of fine and forces them to make repairs. The landlord turns around and evicts the tenant, makes the repairs and raises the rent for a higher-income tenant, and there’s literally nothing in our laws that stops that from happening.”

Hill would like the city to adopt a program that would require regular health and safety inspections for apartment buildings and anti-retaliation protection for renters. New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell previously supported that approach, but efforts to pass that kind of measure have been opposed by landlords and city council members in the past, The Lens reported.

In Cleveland, renters can turn to the court when landlords won’t make repairs

In 2017, Cleveland’s Department of Building and Housing started inspecting all of its rental units on a rolling schedule. Inspections from the city, which didn’t respond to interview requests, are limited to the outside of a building unless a landlord or tenant lets the inspector inside.

Aside from filing complaints, Cleveland renters can take other action when their landlords aren’t making serious repairs. Renters can give notice to their landlord about the issue, and if the repairs haven’t been made in a certain amount of time, tenants can deposit their rent at the court instead of with their landlord.

Renters have a few options from there, said Abigail Staudt, managing attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland’s housing group. Tenants can ask the court to release the amount they’d need to make the repairs themselves from the rent they’d deposited. They can also ask the court to end their rental agreement or reduce their rent.

“Our experience has been … that that process is often difficult to navigate and really underutilized by tenants, and we think it’s for a number of reasons,” Staudt said.

Tenants can only use the system if they’re current on their rent, and it takes a lot of effort from renters, she said. And even though landlord retaliation is illegal in Ohio, it remains a fear for renters who are concerned that pushing for repairs could lead to eviction.

Staudt believes greater access to legal services would help renters understand their rights and navigate the rent deposit system. It might not have to be full representation, “but even advice on how to go take the steps necessary to complete this process I think would help tenants feel more confident in using the system,” she said.

On a similar vein, Pitchford would like to see more education for Tulsa renters on their rights as tenants and how to report complaints about poor housing conditions.

“It’s those private rental agreements that the city never knows about. They don’t even know where they are,” he said. “Those tenants may be preyed on, because they don’t know how to report or they don’t know (they) don’t have to live this way.”

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Contact editor Mollie Bryant at 405-990-0988 or Follow her on Twitter.

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