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In Austin, regulation of substandard apartments is feeble

Toothless enforcement fails to protect tenants in city’s most dilapidated apartments.


A second-floor walkway collapses at the Wood Ridge Apartments on Burton Drive. The city evacuates more than 160 residents from their homes and discovers that all 15 of the complex’s second-story walkways are substandard or in imminent danger of collapse.

Five months later and one mile away, 60 more people are evacuated from the Las Palmas apartments on Town Lake Circle after a tenant hears a loud crack from a sagging walkway.

Austin code inspectors were no strangers to either place. Tenant complaints had brought them to Wood Ridge 33 times over the previous 28 months and Las Palmas more than two dozen times in the prior two years, but they didn’t notice the failing walkways.

The incidents last year were not a fluke, but a symptom of a citywide problem. Austin’s patchwork system for monitoring and correcting health and safety problems at hundreds of apartments and other rental properties — where half of the city’s population lives — is woefully inadequate, an American-Statesman investigation has found.

The newspaper’s analysis and a separate University of Texas study to be released this week found that the city does little to protect tenants from unsafe living conditions:

• City code inspectors juggle as many as 500 cases or complaints at any given time, double what is considered a full load by their supervisors. Austin has one-sixth the number of inspectors assigned to neighborhood and multifamily code issues as Dallas, the UT study found.

• The nuisance abatement unit at the Austin Police Department, which investigates properties with chronic crime problems, was cut from four detectives to one in 2009, and it only recently added a second detective.

• The city attorney’s office, where the Police Department sends nuisance cases for possible legal action, doesn’t have anyone assigned exclusively to troubled properties and has yet to file a lawsuit against an apartment owner.

• The result: While city code inspectors have documented more than 1,600 code violations at multifamily properties since 2007, they have issued just 153 citations and sent only 44 cases to the city’s Building and Standards Commission (which can order repairs and fine owners) during that period.

“We need to take a hard look at the resources we’re allotting to Code Compliance and whether those resources are adequate,” said City Council Member Kathie Tovo, one of two members who have proposed requiring some rental properties to register with the city and be inspected regularly. “It should be a priority to make sure everyone has safe housing.”

For years, it hasn’t been a priority. Austin is full of aging apartment complexes that could become the next Wood Ridge. More than 40 percent of Austin’s multifamily rental property — everything from duplexes to apartments with hundreds of units — were built before 1974. But the city doesn’t regularly inspect rental properties for safety and structural soundness.

Other Texas cities are doing much more, and have for years. Dallas, Houston and San Antonio boast teams with code inspectors, police and other personnel who focus on the worst nuisance properties. Austin had a similar team but disbanded it more than a decade ago.

Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston also require multifamily properties to register with the city and submit to regular inspections — something Austin’s City Council is just now beginning to consider on a limited scale.

“(Austin) has absolutely gone backward,” said Heather Way, a University of Texas law professor who has studied the issue with her students and is scheduled to release an 88-page report on the problem and possible solutions Monday. “And the tenants are the ones who are suffering.”

The walkway collapse at Wood Ridge underscored Austin’s tendency to act only after things reach crisis levels: Code inspectors didn’t issue a single citation there during their 33 visits before the May 2012 collapse. Immediately after it, a thorough inspection found 760 violations, leading to nearly a half a million dollars in fines.

After the collapse, Code Compliance Director Carl Smart told City Council members in October that his department would hire four inspectors to focus exclusively on multifamily properties. Nearly a year later, those inspectors have yet to be hired.

In Austin, apartment owners have just a 50-50 chance that a code complaint will lead to a violation notice and a 1-in-10 chance that a violation will lead to a citation, according to Code Compliance Department data.

Austin “is very good at making it look like they’ve done something to address a problem even though nothing has changed,” said Robert Doggett, who used to sue apartment owners at the Dallas City Attorney’s office and now works as general counsel at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. “I know they have the tools; they just refuse to use them.”

'It flips, it flips, and it flips again'

The city’s weak enforcement benefits apartment owners who boost their profits by spending little on maintenance and repairs. Tenant advocates say many such owners are out-of-state investors who specialize in buying aging apartment complexes and “milking” them for maximum profits.

Of the 10 apartment complexes with the most code complaints since 2007, only three were locally owned. Four have owners from other states.

Apartments that rack up lots of code violations have often fallen into a sort of maintenance death spiral, said Melissa Miles, an assistant city attorney in Dallas who handles problem property cases there.

Investors buy the properties cheap — often sight unseen — and try to avoid major repairs before they sell them to the next investors, she said. The buildings might get a cheap face-lift, but their bones — major components such as electrical wiring, plumbing, roofs, balconies and stairways — deteriorate.

“It flips, it flips, and it flips again … until you get the (owner) who will literally slap a coat of paint on it and flip it in six months,” Miles said.

Meanwhile, Austin’s hot real estate market is drawing investors who have snapped up many troubled properties and either bulldozed them to build shiny new apartments or gutted and renovated the old buildings. Wood Ridge and Las Palmas (which is now called Link Apartments) were sold after their problems came to light and are being completely renovated — as have four other properties among the top 10 for code complaints.

But cleaning up those properties often means displacing low-income tenants who can’t afford the higher rents that typically follow. And in a city where rental occupancy hovers around 97 percent, those tenants have fewer affordable options.

No new investors have come to the rescue of the Pavillion apartments on Patton Lane, which is on the market (along with the Cottonwood apartments next door) for $2.6 million, according to an online real estate listing.

The 40-year-old complex’s wooden shingles are literally rotting away — pieces of sheet metal have been nailed over the holes like crude bandages. The place is a dark maze of rickety stairs, broken windows and wheezing air conditioners, many of them inoperable during 100-degree heat.

Lasheba Covington’s one-bedroom apartment there is infested with roaches, she said. In the bathroom, a row of wall tiles have fallen into the tub. A broken front window has gone unfixed for a month, she said. She has repeatedly complained to the manager, who Covington said is doing the best she can, but little happens.

Covington and her husband, who is disabled from a car wreck, live on a fixed income with their 7-month-old baby. They don’t want to stay there, despite the $527-a-month rent, but they don’t know where they can find a nicer apartment on what they earn.

Code inspectors investigated 36 complaints and recorded 22 violations at the property between 2008 and 2012, but they didn’t issue any citations, according to Code Compliance data.

The Pavillion’s owner, Foley Property Assets of Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., didn’t return a phone call seeking comment.

“I’m ready to get up out of here,” Covington said. “Just because you’re struggling doesn’t mean you should have to live dirty.”

An uphill battle

The city employees tasked with going after problem rental properties in Austin are frank about the uphill battle they’ve waged for years.

The Code Compliance Department has 56 inspectors — one for every 15,000 Austin residents. And responding to complaints at rental properties is just one of their duties. They investigate everything from complaints about weed-choked vacant lots to overflowing trash bins to carports built without proper permits.

“We don’t drive around looking for (violations) because we don’t have the staff to do that,” said Ron Potts, a division manager in the Code Compliance Department. “We rely on people to call them in to us. … Our guys are drowning. The workload is unmanageable.”

When they find a violation, the department’s approach is to do everything possible to get voluntary compliance — slapping an owner with a citation is a last resort.

So the load falls on inspectors such as Manny Villegas, a retired Austin police officer who patrols a broad swath of North Austin from U.S. 183 to Braker Lane, with Interstate 35 and MoPac Boulevard as the east-west boundaries. Six inspectors are assigned to this zone, Villegas said, and he’s the only Spanish speaker in an area with a heavy immigrant population.

“Just hammering people, it doesn’t get the job done; it’ll never get the job done,” he said. “You can’t be a bully, because you won’t get compliance that way.”

In the rare cases when inspectors hand out citations, owners tend to fight, and their lawyers can drag out the process for a year or more, code compliance Division Manager Paul Tomasovic told a group of neighbors at a North Austin community meeting earlier this year.

Other owners simply pay the fine but don’t fix the problems. “Some of them see it as a cost of doing business,” Tomasovic said.

If the code violations are a threat to tenants’ safety, or if the owner is persistently noncompliant (such as those who pay fines but don’t fix issues), the Code Compliance Department can send a case to the Building and Standards Commission, a seven-member body that meets monthly to hear cases of alleged violations of the city’s housing and dangerous buildings regulations.

Unlike municipal judges, the commission can order an owner to make repairs in addition to imposing fines.

During 2012, code inspectors found 589 code violations at 121 different rental properties, but only 57 cases went before the commission. It issued 34 repair orders, four demolition orders and one order to vacate a property. It also collected $203,000 in fines, according to its annual report.

Daunting task

When Detective Julie Long joined the Police Department’s nuisance abatement unit in 2009, she was one of four detectives pursuing cases against crime-plagued apartments, motels and other properties. Two years later, the other detectives had either retired or were transferred to other units.

So Long soldiered on alone, working on her cases and those left by her departed colleagues — along with other duties such as doing criminal background checks on liquor license applicants.

“It was overwhelming for one person,” Long said. “I don’t go looking for (problem) properties; I only investigate cases that are referred to me.”

The department finally sent another detective to help her in June. That’s still not enough to be aggressive about finding and pursuing crime-ridden properties, she said.

Austin police will consider opening a nuisance abatement case if a property has been the scene of at least three offenses within a year from a specific list that includes prostitution, drug offenses and robbery. Once Long compiles that history, she sends the owner a certified letter requesting a meeting to make recommendations for improvements at the property.

If the owner doesn’t cooperate, she said, it’s up to the city attorney’s office to file a lawsuit to force them to clean up the problems.

But that hasn’t happened in years, she said. The cases land at the city attorney’s office and essentially disappear.

Long says she’s sent just five cases to the city attorney’s office for prosecution in four years, but “a lot of them, they’ve been sitting on them,” she said. One case she sent over during her first year on the job still hasn’t been filed four years later.

“Litigation is not their full-time job, I get that,” Long said. “However …” She doesn’t finish the sentence. She blames the city bureaucracy as much as anything. Before filing a lawsuit, a case needs to get the blessing of the police chief, the city manager and the city attorney — meaning a veto by any of them can send a case to no-man’s land.

“If the city would actually show that they’ll do something to these property owners,” Long says. “City legal isn’t showing that anything would be done (if owners don’t comply).”

Samantha Park, spokeswoman for the city’s law department, said it has received only one referral for a case involving a multifamily rental property, and that case was resolved before it filed suit.

Deputy City Attorney Anne Morgan said her office rarely files lawsuits because “the goal is to have (owners) resolve the problem. If we shut down the place, the residents have to go someplace else. The goal is to get it worked out through Code Compliance.”

Across Texas

Other Texas cities have found ways to get the attention of owners who don’t correct unsafe or substandard living conditions.

Houston picked a “dirty half-dozen” of the most dangerous properties to target – all of them vacant. “We Wyatt-Earped the whole thing and threw at them everything we had,” said Katye Tipton, director of Houston’s Department of Neighborhoods.

All six were torn down, with the last one — an abandoned south side motel — falling to the excavators in January.

San Antonio, where 100 code inspectors cover a city of 1.3 million, has a seven-member Neighborhood Enforcement Team that focuses on areas with chronic code violators or high crime, said Ximena Copa-Wiggins, a spokeswoman for the city’s Development Services Department.

The team goes door-to-door, writing up every violation they see, she said. Another 12-member team brings in city resources to clean up and secure vacant or dilapidated structures, giving demolition orders for those that are too far gone to repair.

Fort Worth requires apartments to register each year and pay a fee that helps fund the city’s $875,000 annual budget for inspections. Multifamily rental properties are inspected every two years — and if a property fails, the inspection schedule ramps up to once a year, said Shannon Elder, Fort Worth’s assistant director of code compliance.

A city commission can order repairs or issue fines. But with rental registration, the city can also suspend or revoke a property’s registration. Suspension means monthly fees until the owner fixes the problems. Revocation brings even higher fines — although Elder said Fort Worth has never had to take that step.

But a few owners have been hit with fines as high as $50,000, Elder said. Last year, a Utah owner whose Fort Worth property had dozens of code violations and failed to pay the resulting citations was arrested in January when he appeared at a commission hearing.

Austin City Council Member Bill Spelman, who has his own proposal for rental registration (it would require registration only for repeat code violators), said he wants to see Austin follow other cities’ lead to prevent another Wood Ridge.

“We could’ve done something months and months before (the walkway collapse). But we treated Wood Ridge like every other property,” he said. “The approach taken by other cities to use more tools in the toolbox (to go after such properties) is what we need to be doing here.”

'We get good results'

Among Texas cities, Dallas has put the most money and manpower into monitoring rental properties — and going after owners who let their property rot. “Dallas is the gold standard for Texas,” said Way, the UT law professor.

In Dallas, any property with three or more rental units must register with the city and pay a registration fee to get an occupancy certificate. Before the city issues a certificate, inspectors with experience in the major trades (such as plumbing, electrical and structural) make sure the buildings are safe.

They then return every two years to examine the exterior of the buildings, and randomly enter 10 percent of the apartments for an interior inspection, said Miles, the assistant city attorney. If the property fails inspection, the owner has 30 days to fix the problems, then has to pay the city for a follow-up inspection.

The second time around, they inspect the same units again, plus another 10 percent of the apartments, Miles said: “That keeps places on their toes. We don’t have stairwells falling off (buildings) because we’ll see that way in advance.”

If owners refuse to fix the problems, Miles said the case comes to her office, where six lawyers are assigned to problem property cases. Those who don’t agree to correct problems after getting a warning letter will get sued.

What typically follows is a court injunction giving the owner a set amount of time to correct the problems, along with fines of $1,000 per violation per day. Miles said it’s not uncommon to get $1 million judgments against owners. The money funds her office.

“We get good results, and we … get paid,” she said.

“We are the tip of the spear, and we will stab you in the heart, quickly and painfully — and fatally in some cases,” she said, adding that owners have been taken to jail in handcuffs for failing to respond to a lawsuit.

When a city doesn’t show it’s willing to take owners to court for ignoring code violations, she said, it “sends a message to the property owners … the spear is broken.”



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