CLINTON — A recommendation to update building maintenance requirements ended in a debate about government overreach and individual rights during last week’s Clinton City Council meeting.
The Neighborhood Improvement Committee recommended that the city’s Building and Neighborhood Services Department implement the 2018 International Property Maintenance Code to address problems with properties before they become uninhabitable and have to be demolished, wrote Clinton Fire Chief Joel Atkinson in his report to the council May 12.
This will reduce the amount of money the city spends demolishing blighted residential properties.
The International Property Maintenance Code would replace the Housing Quality Standard described in Federal Housing and Urban Development Guidelines that is currently used as Clinton’s rental standard. After IPMC is adopted, the Minimum Health and Housing Standard, Chapter 155, will be updated as 155A, Atkinson wrote in his report.
The change will give inspectors the authority they need to force improvements, Jeff Chapman, Building and Neighborhood Services supervisor, told the council last week. “They need teeth.”
But Councilman Sean Connell sees the code as government overreach. It’s not the government’s place to tell residents to fix things on their homes, and some residents might not be able to afford the mandated repairs, said Connell. He voted against forwarding Chapter 155A to the next City Council meeting for the first of three readings.
This code will flatten the curve as far as nuisances, said Councilwoman Cyara Peterson, using a phrase that residents have become familiar with during the coronavirus pandemic. Area contractors may be willing to help residents who can’t afford upgrades, she said.
City Administrator Matt Brooke said that the International Property Maintenance Code allows homeowners a better course of appeal if they disagree with city requirements. He said the city doesn’t plan to go inside homes to check for compliance, but some violations, such as rubbish on the property, are visible from the outside.
“Where we get a lot of the complaints, it’s from the neighbors. It’s not necessarily from inspection agents,” Brooke said.
“Diamond Builders are already using this draft to build new homes,” Brooke said.
“The City doesn’t want to fine people,” said Brooke. “It wants to bring their homes up to code to make them safer.
“I just think it’s a win across the board,” said Brooke.
Regardless of the intent of the current council, future officials could use the Code differently, said Connell. “I feel like this is going to live long after us. We’re putting something out there, and you don’t know how they’ll interpret it [in the future].”
Chapman said he understands Connell’s fears and shares some of them. “But this is a good proactive step forward.”
The process does need oversight, and the council is good at that, Chapman said. “We’re just looking for some help.”
People have rights, Connell said. “I’m really all about protecting the buildings, but it’s not a magic pill, and it doesn’t get rid of all the nuisances. It’s a tool, but its not the cure,” he said.
“And we’re going to be affecting a lot of folks that can’t afford to do this.” The change will hurt residents on the lower income scale,” Connell said.
But Brooke said the new code will help lower-income residents because it will assure that their homes meet minimum standards. “I really think that this is ... the right time and right space for this council to really take this.”
The IPMC says it will apply “to all existing residential and nonresidential structures and all existing premises and constitute minimum requirements and standards for premises, structures, equipment and facilities for light, ventilation, space, heating, sanitation, protection from the elements, a reasonable level of safety from fire and other hazards, and for a reasonable level of sanitary maintenance.”
The code is meant to ensure public health, safety and welfare, the code says. “Existing structures and premises that do not comply with these provisions shall be altered or repaired to provide a minimum level of health and safety as required herein.””
An appointed code official will have the authority to interpret the code and to adopt polices and procedures in order to clarify the application of the IPMC provisions, the code says.
“Where it is necessary to make an inspection to enforce the provisions of this code, or whenever the code official has reasonable cause to believe that there exists ... a condition in violation of this code, the code official is authorized to enter the structure or premises at reasonable times to inspect or perform the duties imposed by this code, provided that ... the official shall present credentials to the occupant and request entry.”
The code official can get a warrant if entry is denied. Chapman said such entry is infrequent when dealing with building violations. “I know to date we’ve had four times in seven years when we had to get a warrant. Three of the four were squatters and shouldn’t have been there.”
When city inspectors find violations of the current code, they assist owners in reaching a solution, Chapman said. “We’ve helped more people get grants than we’ve ever displaced from doing these inspections.”
The city is giving code officials a lot of power, said Mayor Scott Maddasion. “What kind of oversight do we have?”
“I don’t think we’re actually giving them power,” Brooke said. “You give them authority to execute the code and laws. If something’s not following the standards, the council will hear about it.”
A person directly affected by a decision of the code official has the right to appeal to the board of appeals by filing a written application within 20 days, the code says.
A pdf copy of the International Property Maintenance Code is available at www.clintonherald.com.