Enforcing housing codes violations in Mount Airy should begin with a friendly knock on the door rather that a threatening letter in the mail, city officials say.
“It’s always better from a public relations standpoint,” said Richard Smith, an official in the Mount Airy Planning Department, which handles such cases and has been trying to address related concerns.
Smith was speaking at a meeting of the city board of commissioners Thursday afternoon regarding ongoing issues with substandard residential sites in Mount Airy.
Municipal officials know these exist, although identifying the best ways to address them has been elusive. But after a presentation by Smith Thursday which included photos showing examples of code violations and a subsequent discussion by city officials, one thing is clear: voluntary compliance is best.
Smith, who is associated with the firm Benchmark Inc. which has been handling the city’s planning functions as part of a 2011 privatization agreement, recommended that codes enforcement personnel be given latitude to make initial “courtesy calls” when violations surface.
Such informal contact with the owner of a property in violation tends to be more productive than launching a formal procedure that could put someone on the defensive, Smith said, citing Benchmark’s experiences in other communities it has served.
“Normally, we get better results by doing that,” he said. “Communication is huge.”
This could enable a situation to be corrected sooner rather than later — avoiding a protracted legal process that could take years to resolve.
“A lot of people have the impression that they can call you this week,” Smith said of a code-related complaint, “and have the property cleaned up by next week.”
While Mount Airy officials did not take action on the matter Thursday, they seemed to agree with the enforcement approach suggested.
“I think a courtesy call is the right thing to do,” Mayor Deborah Cochran said, “because some people don’t realize they’re in violation.”
Another factor in this regard involves limited city funds being available for either forced demolitions or litigation.
Mount Airy leaders also have struggled with the issue of which properties should be priorities.
It was suggested during Thursday afternoon’s discussion that those in high-profile locations might be addressed first, since correcting them would produce the greatest visual impact. Smith also said the city could focus on vacant or deteriorating properties on which no taxes have been paid.
But a key consideration is that regardless of the priorities, enforcement should be “as fair as possible” Commissioner Jon Cawley said. Fairness is essential in dealing with citizens on matters of public policy, he said.
“Where are we going to draw our lines?” Cawley added.
The board member had said previously he is more concerned about structural violations that put occupants at risk than those which are simply unsightly.
But Smith pointed out during his presentation that what appear to be just aesthetic problems also can pose safety risks, such as a sagging roof or leaning chimney which could collapse on someone.
The law is especially sensitive to protecting children, he said, who can be removed from a home by the Department of Social Services to safeguard their welfare.
Smith also outlined how housing code cases are opened, which can be triggered by calls from renters of dwellings in substandard condition, observations by municipal personnel or five or more citizens notifying city officials that a structure is unfit for human habitation.
“Sometimes it’s complaint-driven,” he said.
Assuming a resulting courtesy call to the owner proves fruitless, that person will be formally notified of the need for corrective action and a hearing with all affected parties also can be included.
The planning official added that the city government will try to work with the owner, including supplying contractor information and specifics on what needs to be done.
And if repairs can’t be made for under a sum representing 50 percent of the structure’s tax value, it can be forcibly demolished if the owner has not acted within a 90-day deadline.
Citizen Input A Key
A possible need to revise the municipality’s existing regulations had been mentioned at earlier meetings, but Smith thinks the comprehensive minimum housing code that Mount Airy adopted in the past doesn’t need tweaking.
“There are many jurisdictions that would trade places with you for the comprehensive ordinance that you have,” he told city officials.
Commissioner Steve Yokeley said he thinks what’s needed at this point is a plan for enforcement personnel to address its provisions.
City Manager Barbara Jones said Thursday that she would be meeting with the Benchmark official to examine specific procedures for this which have worked well in other communities.
In the meantime, the city manager said it’s important for citizens to call the planning department to report problem sites, which will aid the process by allowing case histories to be started on them.
Commissioner Shirley Brinkley said she has seen some improvement since the board called for greater housing code enforcement at the first of this year.
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or firstname.lastname@example.org.