When you get right down to it, a failure to enforce code compliance on multifamily dwellings puts the city in an unwanted partnership with slumlords.
For too long, the city of Austin has looked the other way while apartment buildings that offer low rents have deteriorated to the point where they become public safety hazards. A collapse of a second-story walkway at the Wood Ridge Apartments in Southeast Austin last year rudely shook awake a city bureaucracy rendered somnambulant by short staffs. Less than aggressive code compliance bred by a complaint-driven system make terrific allies for landlords who can intimidate dissident renters with threats of evictions.
Last week, the City Council took an important step toward ramping up code compliance by setting up a system that would require rental properties that receive multiple code violations to register and submit to regular inspections. It is an important step, but by no means should it be the end of the journey.
The problems surfaced by the incidents at Wood Ridge and other low-income rental properties indicate the lack of a balanced approach to developing housing that is accessible to a wide variety of incomes.
Fortunately, the structural failures that directed the council’s attention to a cluster of rental units concentrated around East Riverside Drive caused no injuries or deaths.
That could be chalked up to good luck or providence, but trusting luck or providential patience is not a sound way to craft public policy.
We applaud Council Member Bill Spelman for proposing the registration program that won unanimous council approval.
As the American-Statesman’s Sarah Coppola reported in last week’s editions, the program is aimed at helping city code compliance inspectors to track and monitor buildings in such disrepair that they pose a public safety hazard. Code Compliance Director Carl Smart told the council that about 400 rental properties have been cited for multiple code violations in the past five years.
Property owners will not be required to pay registration or inspection fees, but those who refuse to comply would face a fine up to $2,000 per violation per day. The Spelman ordinance also authorizes the city to prohibit landlords from renting more units until problems are fixed.
The financial burden imposed by structural failures doesn’t stop at the owner’s property line.
The city incurred significant expense in responding to the Wood Ridge collapse and overseeing the evacuation of renters and their families from the complex — which had a history of complaints about upkeep and code compliance.
While the Spelman ordinance is welcome, it also is an opening for a larger discussion on how the city balances the need for safe, clean rental units that lower income people can afford with the rising demand for upscale housing.
The affordability issue is one that gets talked about in the abstract but doesn’t receive much attention otherwise.
The lack of housing options for working families create perfect conditions for multifamily dwellings that pose public safety risks. Low-rental units are so scarce that renters are afraid to report substandard conditions for fear of being evicted and being “blacklisted” as problem tenants.
And because code compliance inspections are complaint driven, owners of substandard dwellings have significant leverage with tenants to keep quiet — until a roof caves in or a walkway collapses.
Austin has been behind other cities in Texas in code enforcement as Coppola noted in her report. Spelman’s ordinance is a move in the right direction, but a city officialdom that loves to brag about Austin’s quality of life should not be content to stamp this file closed.
One ordinance, however welcome, isn’t the final answer. The affordability issue is one that will take a multidimensional look at how city decisions affect the housing market at both ends of the spectrum.
The Spelman ordinance isn’t the end of the discussion, then. It’s only the beginning.