Ongoing complaints regarding minimum housing regulations in Mount Airy, especially involving rental properties, could result in new tactics including the power to obtain administrative warrants allowing inspection personnel to enter residences.
But while city officials agree that more teeth are needed to address bona fide violations putting occupants at risk, there is also an underlying belief among some that poorer areas are being targeted.
Specific concerns recently have surfaced about a rental house at 141 W. Poplar St. where a major drug bust occurred in December. Along with the drug activity inside, neighboring property owners have complained about the appearance outside, including abandoned cars, garbage, destroyed appliances and old tires — even an abandoned pit bull and a large turtle on the front porch.
While those items have been removed, the Poplar Street house continued to be the focus of speakers at a public forum during a meeting of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners last Thursday.
“I and many other neighbors on West Poplar Street and West Lebanon Street (nearby) request your support to use whatever legal means you can to ensure that drug lords … who need a place to sell their drugs can no longer rent this property,” Carol Burke told the commissioners in seeking stern measures.
“We believe that must start with one house at a time,” Burke added of a tougher response. “And it is 141 West Poplar Street.”
While city officials decided later at the meeting — after a presentation by Bill Beamer, Mount Airy’s codes enforcement officer — to discuss new ways to alleviate housing-related problems at a special meeting this Thursday at 2 p.m., some skepticism emerged.
Commissioner Jim Armbrister, a retired city police officer who served nearly 20 years, implied that a desire to remove a threat from a poorer part of town is non-existent when the same problem occurs in certain other neighborhoods.
“I’ve seen houses in Cross Creek Country Club raided because of drugs,” Armbrister said of an affluent area in the northern part of town.
“Nobody asked to have those houses torn down.”
Armbrister referred to attempts by neighbors to have the West Poplar Street house designated as a nuisance property, both on the local level and through a state nuisance and abatement officer.
“This property doesn’t even start to qualify for nuisance abatement,” he said while acknowledging the receiving of identical complaint information over and over along with a photo portfolio showing conditions at the house.
Armbrister specifically mentioned images sent to city officials of a car and city-issued garbage container out front. “What does that tell me?”
Commissioner Jon Cawley later continued in this vein with comments detailing his first-hand observations, including on a drive down West Poplar Street.
“And it was my impression that 141 looked better than the others,” Cawley said of a cluster of rental homes there.
The North Ward commissioner also alleged that a class bias is behind the complaints, one mirroring situations elsewhere.
“Most communities spend a certain amount of energy to zone out the poor — I’m not saying you people are doing that,” Cawley told Burke and others who’ve registered complaints.
But everyone needs to consider what makes Mount Airy different from other places and the warm, small-town traits associated with that “birthright,” he said.
“The more we try to be like other places, the less we are like Mount Airy.”
Though Commissioner Armbrister said everything has been done within the confines of the law to address the situation on West Poplar Street, he acknowledged that enforcement improvements are needed. “We’ve identified our weak spots,” he said concerning plans to alter procedures to reach that objective.
Proposed changes were offered by Beamer, who since August has served as the city’s codes enforcement officer on a part-time basis (20 hours per week). Beamer replaced another part-time employee assigned this function by the private Benchmark company that supplies planning-related services to city government.
Some officials believed that individual was not handling housing-related complaints in a timely manner.
But Beamer indicated during his presentation last Thursday that there are built-in obstacles which keep anyone from succeeding in this role.
“The city has simply not devoted the resources to it,” he said of minimum housing codes enforcement, adding that continuing ineffective practices of the past will not adequately address the present need. “In most communities, there’s a lot more resources that go into this.”
One remedy would be to adopt an administrative warrant procedure to allow inspections inside a residence if there is probable cause to suspect a safety or health issue is occurring.
“Right now, without those administrative warrants, we are limited as to what we can see from the street,” Beamer said. Under the present procedures, a landlord can be ordered to clean up the outside of a property, which he described as a lengthy and inefficient process.
“Administrative warrants are the things that are going to let us go in,” the codes officer said of a measure providing teeth to force property owners to remedy bad situations.
“You can’t make them do it if you don’t see it — and you can’t see it unless you can go into the house.”
Beamer also recommended that city officials adopt the International Property Maintenance Code (IPMC), a model set of guidelines that regulates minimum maintenance requirements for existing buildings which could be tailored to local needs.
Among other things, that code calls for a building inspections department.
“I don’t think we need a bunch of inspectors,” Beamer explained. Yet under such a code, personnel could be deputized to assist in the execution of an administrative warrant at a problem property, such as city firefighters.
Such recommendations will be discussed during Thursday’s 2 p.m. special meeting, which is open to the public.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.