Report: Austin program to track, improve unsafe housing isn’t enforced

Two years ago, the Austin City Council passed an ordinance that was supposed to help protect renters from living in blighted, unsafe rental housing by pressuring owners to make repairs.

By establishing the “Repeat Offender” program, the city required rental properties that had received multiple code violations to be listed on a public database, pay a $100 fee and register with the city, which triggers follow-up inspections. Properties that don’t fix violations can lose their ability to rent out new units.

But an independent report by a University of Texas law clinic released Monday says the Repeat Offender program has largely failed to protect tenants because of lax enforcement.

Among the report’s conclusions:

  • The city is failing to register problem properties. At least seven properties that should be on the Repeat Offender list are not. And 10 properties on the list never paid the $100 fine and registered, as required in city code. Beyond that, the entire Repeat Offender program is complaint-driven, relying on tenants to report possible code violations, rather than the city proactively visiting deteriorating properties.
  • The city takes a long time to inspect Repeat Offender properties. The Code Department takes 12.6 days on average to respond to an initial complaint about a Repeat Offender property. For other code violations citywide, the response time is typically two to three days. More comprehensive follow-up inspections required under the law often don’t happen until nine to 12 months later, the report says.
  • There is no effective database for monitoring code violations and tracking whether they have been fixed. Nor can the public easily access code enforcement data on rental properties. This is in apparent violation of a city ordinance requiring “an online reporting tool that is publicly accessible for residential rental properties that have received notices of violation but have not complied in a timely manner.”

“What was most alarming to us is what little progress has been made in light of all the attention to this issue,” said Heather Way, a University of Texas law professor who wrote the 28-page report along with her students. “While there has been some progress, we felt that it is too little progress given the seriousness of this issue.”

The city of Austin said it was not able to comment on “specific aspects or conclusions until we’ve had time to fully review their analysis,” according to spokesman David Green.

“We’ll include their findings as yet another voice in the ongoing discussion concerning dangerous rental properties,” Green said.

The city was given a copy of the report July 20, Way said, and was included in conversations for the report as well as given a presentation on the report’s findings prior to its release.

The UT law clinic report was done on behalf of the North Austin Civic Association. The group approached Way and her students about helping them research the Repeat Offender program after residents grew frustrated with the lack of enforcement for violations in their neighborhood, said Randy Teich, president of the North Austin Civic Association. The law clinic was not paid for the report.

“Our goal is not to point fingers and say, ‘You need to do better than anyone else,’” he said. “We want to sit down with (the Code Department) to see where the roadblocks are. We want to work with City Council or any other department that can help us reduce those roadblocks to getting the neighborhood we want.”

One of the biggest problems with the program, Teich said, is the time it takes for the properties in violation to voluntarily address complaints. In an analysis of 10 repeat offender properties, the report found that it took an average of 159 days to address a complaint voluntarily. That response is much slower than the department’s stated target of 90 days for addressing complaints.

Another issue is that landlords aren’t fixing many of the code violations that landed them on the list in the first place, such as unsafe stairwells, bed bugs or moldy carpets, the report says. That’s because there are rarely financial penalties for not conducting repairs, the report notes. The code department is reluctant to issue criminal citations that carry fines, the report notes, in part because the Austin Municipal Court is “somewhat hostile to enforcing citations.”

Though the report urges better enforcement of the existing Repeat Offender program, it also suggests a number of policy changes, such as creating an administrative hearings process for criminal code violations, hiring an independent auditor, and adopting full-cost recovery policies so that the fines assessed to landlords pay for the cost of the program. Each property pays a $100 registration fee, but the report cited one instance in which eight inspectors spent a half-day at one problem property at a cost of more than $800.

Way’s law clinic has been studying the city’s code enforcement policies for several years. The clinic issued an 88-page report in 2013 that documented the city’s laissez-faire attitude toward finding and enforcing code violations at Austin’s aging rental properties.

That report came after heavy media attention about a walkway collapse at Wood Ridge Apartments that displaced more than 100 residents. Afterward, the apartment owners were hit with 700 code violations.

The report notes that Austin is facing a crisis with its aging housing stock, with at least 43 percent of Austin’s multifamily housing built prior to 1974. Meanwhile, 62 percent of Austin’s housing units are “Class C” properties, the report says, which are older properties with few amenities and deferred maintenance issues.

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