Tough new housing rules sought in city

By Tom Joyce - tjoyce@civitasmedia.com
Bill Beamer, standing at right, Mount Airy's codes enforcement officer, outlines new guidelines aimed at alleviating ongoing problems with substandard housing and other structures in town. Commissioner Shirley Brinkley is shown to the left. - Tom Joyce | The News
Commissioner Jim Armbrister holds up a copy of the International Property Maintenance Code (IPMC), which city council members have been asked to adopt for local use. - Tom Joyce | The News

New, and tougher, regulations designed to deal more effectively with rundown or dangerous structures have been unveiled for Mount Airy, but some officials complain that the proposals overall would protect property more than people.

The changes would not just strengthen and streamline the enforcement of existing minimum housing and lot nuisance ordinances for rental properties, which have been a concern among some citizens recently. Commercial sites not presently covered by city codes also are included.

“This extends to all buildings,” Bill Beamer, Mount Airy’s codes enforcement officer, said Thursday afternoon when presenting proposed revisions to the city commissioners and making a recommendation that the municipality adopt the International Property Maintenance Code (IPMC).

It is a model set of guidelines embraced by other North Carolina cities which regulates minimum maintenance requirements for existing buildings, with Beamer explaining that the IPMC can be meshed with the city’s existing regulations and tailored to meet local needs. It is aligned with state codes and updated every three years to incorporate changes.

“I believe this is a progressive step and would give us the enforcement procedures that we need,” Beamer said of adopting the code, which already addresses some present requirements in one way or another. He proposed that and other moves in response to shortcomings noted in present guidelines since becoming codes enforcer on a part-time basis in August.

Specific recommendations

• One of the first things Beamer highlighted was including commercial buildings within the city’s purview, which became an issue recently with structural deficiencies at Mayberry Mall. Enforcement measures regarding those were handled by a Surry County inspector under a previous arrangement.

Beamer says dangerous commercial buildings now exist in Mount Airy which are fire hazards and breeding grounds for vermin.

• Another recommendation calls for the establishment of a city property maintenance/inspections unit. “I do not envision that this creates another bureaucracy within the city,” said Beamer, who pointed out that more weight is given to those functions when an actual department is involved.

This also does not mean extra personnel, but would empower the codes officer to deputize firefighters or others to provide sufficient help when inspecting multi-family commercial buildings, for example, “to make sure that we do a thorough job,” Beamer said.

• The proposals also call for reexamining penalties charged for violations, now limited to $50 per day. “Most of the time, we don’t collect that,” Beamer said. “It is more of a threat thing.” But the commissioners might consider authorizing higher penalties for certain offenses and/or chronic offenders, the codes officer said.

• Another change would prohibit the sale or transfer of a property that is under an enforcement order from the Department of Property Maintenance, a practice allowed under present regulations. Beamer mentioned cases in which people are now living in houses identified as having problems which changed hands during the process and therefore circumvented the law.

• In addition, the procedure for condemning a structure would be streamlined, including prohibiting continued occupancy for equipment-related reasons related to heating or cooling units. “That’s a power we don’t have now,” the codes enforcement officer said. Landlords also would be specifically required to provide permanent heating systems, something Beamer predicted they won’t like — “but it’s important.”

This also would add the power to board up structures ordered to be closed until repaired or demolished, and have electrical service disconnected, which now doesn’t exist, and order buildings to be vacated in emergency situations.

• Another change would give the codes officer authority to have a structure demolished (after a 20-day appeal period), a change in present procedure that requires the commissioners’ approval.

“Again, I think that just speeds up the process,” Beamer said, which also would signal that the city government means business.

“This is not a crusade to go tearing houses down,” he added. “That’s not what any of us want — we want people to invest in their property and be better neighbors.”

Unlike present codes here, the IPMC does not address chronic violators or include “community appearance standards” for structures. “So that is an area we may need to address in making local modifications,” Beamer said.

Philosophical differences

The majority of the commissioners appeared to embrace the measures proposed Thursday afternoon, but not everyone was on board with the idea.

This included suggestions by some commissioners that the changes sought are not as “humane” as they need to be, in terms of renters and owners who stand to be impacted.

Commissioner Jon Cawley took issue with an opening statement listed on the eight-page document highlighting the proposals:

“Zoning, minimum housing and lot nuisance codes/ordinances are not enacted to help the poor or benefit tenants. They may benefit the disadvantaged by providing better housing to choose from, but this is not why the laws exist. These laws exist in recognition that when people live in close proximity to each other, individual property value largely depends on collective property value.”

Cawley objected to the idea of protecting property more than people, tenants for example, which Commissioner Jim Armbrister also addressed.

“If we displace a family, where do they go?” Armbrister asked.

“I don’t have an answer for you, Commissioner,” Beamer responded.

He reminded Armbrister than this would be done only in response to an “imminent threat” to occupants’ safety, but the commissioner said ways should be found to handle displacements in a caring manner.

Cawley said he appreciated Beamer’s efforts, but referred to an earlier comment in which Cawley complained about measures that seem to be aimed at zoning out the poor. “This looks like a giant step toward that to me,” he said of the proposed changes.

The North Ward commissioner believes those targeted most would be people on fixed incomes who lack the means to make improvements.

Armbrister also expressed concern about allowing demolitions without board approval and the costs involved.

A vote on incorporating the proposed changes is expected in March.

Bill Beamer, standing at right, Mount Airy’s codes enforcement officer, outlines new guidelines aimed at alleviating ongoing problems with substandard housing and other structures in town. Commissioner Shirley Brinkley is shown to the left.
https://www.mtairynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/web1_Code-this-1.jpgBill Beamer, standing at right, Mount Airy’s codes enforcement officer, outlines new guidelines aimed at alleviating ongoing problems with substandard housing and other structures in town. Commissioner Shirley Brinkley is shown to the left.Tom Joyce | The News

Commissioner Jim Armbrister holds up a copy of the International Property Maintenance Code (IPMC), which city council members have been asked to adopt for local use.
https://www.mtairynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/web1_Code-this-2.jpgCommissioner Jim Armbrister holds up a copy of the International Property Maintenance Code (IPMC), which city council members have been asked to adopt for local use.Tom Joyce | The News

By Tom Joyce

tjoyce@civitasmedia.com

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.