Mount Airy wants to get tougher on violators of the municipality’s minimum housing codes, but that could come at a high price.
Launching a formal enforcement process against an errant property owner is the easy part. But recovering the costs of such actions can be much harder, officials were told during at an annual city government planning retreat several days ago when enforcement of minimum housing codes was a key discussion topic.
Planning department officials who enforce the codes told the board of commissioners and other officials that the preferred route is obtaining voluntary compliance from owners — but if that doesn’t work, initiating the formal process can get sticky.
This might end up with taxpayers footing the bill for demolition, and even if the city obtains the site through foreclosure proceedings it might not be able to sell the property to recoup that expense.
“It is kind of like an upside-down tree,” said Steve May, a former police officer who deals with housing-related complaints. “Once it gets started it can branch out in all directions.”
The problem might seem simple on the surface: contact the owner of a dilapidated, abandoned house and order him or her to fix it up to comply with housing regulations or tear it down.
“And if the owner doesn’t have the money, what are you going to do next?” said Richard Smith, a planning department official who along with May is associated with Benchmark Inc., which oversees city planning functions through a 2011 privatization agreement.
The situation also can get complicated if more than one owner is involved or the site is part of an estate with multiple heirs who must be contacted as part of any remedying action. “There could be 10 different heirs spread out everywhere,” Mount Airy Finance Officer John Overton said.
City Moving Ahead
Despite all the possible pitfalls, commissioners said at the end of the retreat discussion that they want to proceed with forceful action against housing code offenders.
“I’d like to see him (May) be more aggressive and see the property owners demolish them, or fix them up,” Commissioner Steve Yokeley said of rundown structures. “A lot of property owners are using delay tactics.”
Yokeley added, “I think we need to get started.” He and others also want to strengthen Mount Airy’s minimum-housing ordinance adopted 10 years ago, including extending its provisions to the extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ) zone, a one-mile area surrounding Mount Airy where land is subject to municipal zoning regulations.
This is not the first time Mount Airy officials have decided to get tough with housing code violators. At another planning retreat in 2012, with Benchmark newly on the job in the planning department, that was identified as a city government objective.
That has led to some demolitions, including a Sept. 20 action by the board of commissioners involving structures at 335 Price St. and 2046 Dyson Place — which cost the city $9,100.
“You can have a couple of them a month if that’s the direction you want to go,” May told the commissioners regarding such demolitions. “I can have you two or three every meeting — it really boils down to dollars and cents.”
Since being given the green light in February 2012 to attack the problem in Mount Airy after years of relative neglect, May said he now has an active caseload of about 10 properties.
Planning officials came to last week’s retreat to ask if the commissioners wanted to continue pursuing a proactive approach, and soon had an answer.
“I think we need to go ahead and get started, be more aggressive — at least until we evaluate the ordinance,” Commissioner Dean Brown said. “It could be that after a few cases come before the board, things will change — people will begin to listen.”
“I’d like to see him get more aggressive with the properties that are already on the list,” Yokeley said of May.
Shirley Brinkley, another board member, said she favored the same approach and also expressed concern about yards being mowed, which are in violation when the grass reaches 12 inches.
“You’ve got a big job, buddy,” she told May.
The discussion indicated that cases involving safety risks should be the priority, such as children living in substandard housing conditions. Rundown structures also can harbor illegal drug activities and pose hazards to firefighters if a blaze occurs, city officials were told.
“Right now, it’s really heavily complaint-driven,” Smith said of the enforcement process. “That, for want of better words, is the squeaky-wheel approach, but it is what it is — again, funding is a big issue with this.”
In response to a question from Commissioner Jon Cawley, Smith said complaints tend to come about a structure on a well-traveled roadway rather than on an out-of-the-way street. “The more people who see it, the more complaints you will get.”
“I’d like to attack it when it’s a safety issue,” Cawley said of the problem, “regardless of where it is.” Cawley also considers piles of debris as safety hazards since they can harbor snakes.
Officials agree that the price tag attached to the enforcement process is a major concern in deciding which course of action to take with a particular site.
Smith said other communities where Benchmark provides services are shying away from enforcing minimum-housing violations because of the costs.
In discussing the local situation, May said he prefers to have the owner(s) correct a problem voluntarily, thus avoiding a formal process that could lead to a public expense.
“You’d be surprised how much cooperation you get,” he said.
Then there are those other cases in which the city ends up picking up the tab, which Smith said includes not only demolition, but hauling away the debris — and extra costs if a hazardous substance such as asbestos is involved.
There are various avenues available for trying to recover those outlays, including foreclosure, or the seizing of the property by the municipality. Yet that is not a viable option, Overton said.
A governmental unit can obtain liens, the finance director said. “But it’s a totally different thing to convert these liens to cash.”
Foreclosures should be looked to “as another tool in the tool box, but it would be costly,” Overton added.
“There’s no guarantee that you’ll sell the property,” City Manager Barbara Jones said.
Yokeley suggested at one point during the retreat that the empty lots be donated to Habitat for Humanity, which at least could ensure they are improved and generated property taxes. He also thinks the city should reserve its right to foreclose on a property.
In pointing to the thousands of dollars spent to raze old houses, ” the only thing we have to show for it is to say we’re prettier,” Cawley summed-up.
“Maybe we can beautify our city without demolition — at least that’s what I hope we can do.”
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or firstname.lastname@example.org.