Why don’t we enforce our building codes better?

This is an issue that indeed comes up on occasion. Chapter 94 of our city ordinance is our housing code. It contains things like the responsibility of owners and occupants to keep their homes in good condition. So, for example, when something falls into disrepair at my house, I have to fix it or possibly be issued a citation and pay a fine. Depending on the situation, citations can be issued as frequently as every day that a violation is not corrected.

So, why are some properties allowed to exist in poor condition for so long? This is not an easy or simple question to answer. So, let me start by talking about the people in our building department who enforce these ordinances. Not long after my first election in 2012, I had a long conversation with Dave Hongisto, our building inspector, about a couple of specific situations. Dave has been with the city well over 30 years; he is one of the most caring and dedicated city employees we have. So I’m very comfortable that he’s the one charged with leading this department and enforcing the rules we make.

Chapter 78 of our city ordinance addresses nuisances. So take for example, an abandoned vehicle in a front yard. If you notice an abandoned vehicle in your neighborhood, you can file a complaint, and the building department will follow up on it. Now, should you expect the vehicle to be removed the next day? Absolutely not. These things usually take time. And the time required really depends on the owner’s circumstances.

It’s certainly possible that a homeowner will receive a request from the building inspector and correct it immediately.  But often it just doesn’t work that way. If it will cost a significant amount of money to correct the violation, it may take the owner a bit longer to resolve. But the building inspector will work with us and focus mostly on resolving an issue in some reasonable time frame. In other words, if an owner says something like, “yeah, this problem will cost me $2,000 to fix, and I’ll have that money in two months, so I’ll fix it then”, I’m okay with the building inspector cutting some slack. I’m not saying he will do that in any specific situation, but my point is that sometimes these situations are not black and white and we need to be flexible.

A great analogy is the speed limits in the city. Most city streets and neighborhoods have a speed limit of 25. Now, can the police department issue a ticket if we’re caught driving 26 MPH? Absolutely. But do we as a community want our police force doing this? After all, 26 MPH is breaking the law right? Well, I would argue that we want our police to cut us a little slack, and don’t issue tickets unless we’re going maybe 28 or 30 MPH.

Other situations that may affect the time it takes to fix violations could be that the owner is in the hospital and just isn’t around to fix it. Or maybe they’re sick, or they lost their job, or are working with special family situations. Or maybe a house needs numerous repairs and the owner can only afford to handle them one at a time. Or maybe the owner is just being difficult. No matter what the reason is, it can easily take a considerable amount of time to get a resolution.

Now, if a building violation is a safety hazard, then we should be a bit less lenient with our rules. But aside from those types of situations, we neighbors need to be patient. Yes, we should file a complaint if we have one. But we also need to have reasonable expectations.