New housing inspections program subject to debateby Jessica Mador, Minnesota Public Radio
The city of St. Paul has been inspecting one- and two-unit rentals under a new program since March. The new program adds at least 6,000 more buildings to the city's inspections list. Even as the city is touting the program's success, homeless advocates worry it will lead to a spike in condemnations, putting tenants on the street.
St. Paul, Minn. — Wanda Smith's downtown St. Paul apartment is in pretty bad shape.
"My bathroom floor is falling in, the whole thing is crumbling inwards, every time you shut the bathroom door you get pieces of plaster falling on you. My toilet is kind of tilted sideways," she says.
Smith and her partner, Anthony Jones, also found abandoned fuel tanks in the basement. Sometimes the fumes are so strong, their eyes burn, they say.
"When you mention it to anybody, their only answer is that the owner isn't going to put any more money into this place. And yet they want a $1,000 down for a deposit and he wants $500 a month," says Smith.
This is just the kind of living situation the city's new inspection program aims to prevent. St. Paul has historically inspected commercial buildings and rentals with three or more units for code violations and fire safety.
But single-family and duplex rentals have not been inspected. As a result, the city says many are rundown. And city fire statistics show the majority of fire deaths occur in one- and two-unit rentals.
Fire inspector A.J. Neis is visiting Smith and Jones' apartment for the first time. He asks them if they've noticed anything in the apartment that needs to be fixed.
Neis inspects the basement and then goes upstairs to check out the bathroom.
"We have a leak where it's coming from. We've also got a very large hole in the upper part of the building by the roof," says Neis.
Neis says the leaky skylight is one of several violations he'll order the landlord to repair within seven to 10 days.
The city uses a point system. Units with more violations earn more points -- and more points mean more frequent inspection.
The new program means that from now on, units with the fewest violations get inspections once every five years. Those with the most get inspected every year. The city says this system helps focus attention on the most neglectful landlords.
At the end of his inspection, Neis notices the smoke detector is broken. Having a non-working detector or having none at all is considered a serious violation.
Inspectors are not required to install detectors, but Neis promises to return later in the day with a new one, free of charge.
Before leaving, he tells Smith and Jones that they may have to move if the landlord doesn't comply and make repairs.
This has homeless advocates worried.
They say the program focuses on just the kind of spacious rental housing families need. They worry that increased inspections will inevitably lead to more condemnations and, they fear, more homeless families.
"It scares me anytime I hear a wrinkle or a rumbling that more people will be forced into homelessness and since our shelters that we have in Ramsey County are pretty much full every night," says Margaret Lovejoy, executive director of The Family Place, a non-profit that provides services for homeless families. "That means more people coming into the system that we are not able to provide shelter for."
Lovejoy says she's not against inspections, but she wants to prevent displacement. Fire Marshall Steve Zaccard says he understands the concern but that it's unfounded.
"It's a perfectly legitimate question, but it has not been our experience in apartment buildings and so far now, I can tell you it hasn't been our experience in these smaller rental properties either in the last three months," Zaccard says.
The condemnation process doesn't happen overnight. Property owners get time to make repairs and they can appeal violations before a judge. Except in life-threatening conditions --like a carbon monoxide leak -- tenants are allowed to stay while repairs are being made.
So far, the new program has condemned 14 occupied buildings. Fire Marshall Zaccard says he believes that any tenants who had to get out all had places to go.
In situations where tenants have no place to go, fire inspectors refer them to the Red Cross and other social service organizations. The city is now working to come up with funds to help tenants who can't afford to move.
City Council President Kathy Lantry helped design the inspections program. She says sometimes even going to a homeless shelter is better than continuing to live in dangerous conditions.
"If we are getting people out of substandard housing, I guess I would rather have them looking for a decent place to live than allowing them to continue to remain in squalor," says Lantry.
Back at the apartment, fire inspector Neis is installing the smoke detector he promised.
Outside, he reflects on the hard choices he sometimes has to make. He says it's never easy telling tenants they have to move out when their apartment is condemned.
"It's a decision that we have to make with regard for their safety and their well being. If they don't have a place to go, we'll do our best to find one, but we can't have them being in a building that there is already life-safety violations," he says. "If they have no place to go, there are shelters and so forth that hopefully they can find a place."
Today's inspection is just the beginning for this property. First, the city will send a letter to the owner ordering repairs. Then, inspectors will return to the property a second time. If the repairs are not made, the owner could be forced to vacate the property.
Neis says he hopes the owner will comply so that Smith and Jones don't have to move out.
City officials say they are confident the inspections program will lead to better living conditions and fewer fire deaths.
- Morning Edition, 07/02/2007, 7:20 a.m.