County lacks minimum code about housing|Editor’s note: The following article continues an occasional series on building and housing conditions in Beaufort County.

Published 9:49 am Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Staff Writer

The City of Washington has a minimum-housing code, but the code is just that — minimum, a leading city official reported.
The code requires certain basic things of property owners, like putting screens on windows.
“It’s pretty useless, and we really need a more comprehensive housing-maintenance code,” City Manager James C. Smith told the Daily News last month.
Still, the minimum code gives the city a set of bottom-line standards to follow when dealing with the quality-of-life needs of tenants or homeowners.
Beaufort County has no minimum-housing code in its unincorporated areas, confirmed County Manager Paul Spruill.
Some advocates for better housing contend the county should adopt a minimum code to help protect its residents, especially low-income renters.
Spruill, who isn’t empowered to enact regulation, declined to say whether the county commissioners should explore adopting more-rigid codes.
“The county, even without the aid of a minimum-housing code, is able to work with homeowners from the point of view of a hazardous structure or a structure that threatens public safety,” Spruill said.
A minimum-housing code is designed to set parameters preventing a home from becoming a threat to public safety, Spruill related.
“Without a minimum-housing code, you still have code-driven reasons to work with homeowners to ensure that they’re not living in structures that are unsafe,” he said. “A minimum-housing code raises that standard, so the county doesn’t benefit from an increased layer of public safety protection in a minimum-housing code.”
Roughly 10 years ago, the Daily News reported on a shortage of adequate, affordable housing in its coverage area as well as the lack of a minimum-housing code in Beaufort County.
Today, some of the same problems persist, and the county still has no minimum code on its books.
Still, Spruill and other county officials said they pursue solutions to problem properties using a variety of mechanisms.
In 2009, the county received 25 complaints about nuisance properties, according to Stacey Harris, environmental-health supervisor.
Of those complaints, 14 were justified, and the county pursued remedies with property owners to bring the offending structures into compliance, Harris said.
So far in 2010, Harris’ department has investigated 17 complaints, eight of have proved justified, he reported recently.
Most of those complaints originated with neighbors of out-of-compliance properties, he shared.
“Most people will come on in and comply, pay the fee, make repairs,” Harris remarked.
Not all of those sites were owned by low-income residents, and offenders included a wide range of people and properties, he confirmed.
As for renters, “Many times, unfortunately, those are your group that are less likely to complain, quite often due to repercussions from the landlord,” Harris said.
If a property owner doesn’t comply with the state building code or wastewater standards, the county can take legal action or initiate condemnation procedures, but Spruill indicated the local government rarely follows that course.
“From the complaint point of view in the last seven years, I’ve personally had reported to me maybe five complaints regarding a neighbor’s dilapidated structure or a relative’s dilapidated structure or a landlord’s dilapidated structure,” he said.
The county has never initiated a formal inventory of the dilapidated or uninhabitable structures in its jurisdiction, Spruill acknowledged.
“Does the county have a problem with dilapidated housing? I think the answer is no more so than anywhere in eastern North Carolina,” he said. “We likely do need to do a better long-term job in monitoring and addressing dilapidated and abandoned mobile home issues, dilapidated and abandoned structures of all types that rise to the level of hazard or public safety threat.”
The Rev. David Moore, a former Beaufort County commissioner, advocated for a minimum-housing code while in office.
“You’ve got a lot of citizens of the county who really, for no fault of their own, don’t have access to decent, safe, affordable housing,” Moore said. “The only way to attack that type of an issue is you’ve got do some kind of code enforcement.”
As president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit Metropolitan Housing and Community Development Corp., Moore has helped steer 300 families and individuals into first-time home ownership and assisted in the placement of residents in 700 apartments statewide.
Without a minimum code, the county can continue pursuing state-federal Community Development Block Grants to “do little pockets of renovation” to housing units, Moore advised.
“That’s about all there is now, unless (the U.S. Department of Agriculture) comes up with a really well-funded program that could help rural counties, poorer counties like eastern North Carolina,” he said.
Metropolitan is seeing an increase in the numbers of people seeking affordable housing in these difficult economic times, Moore confirmed.
“A lot of people lost housing, and this has been a brutal recession,” he concluded, referring in part to rampant foreclosures.
Moore doesn’t hold out much hope that the county commissioners will adopt a minimum-housing code any time soon, and, historically, most of the commissioners have been reluctant to pursue stronger housing regulations.
“You would need another type of county commission to push for that,” he said.