City beefs up code

Published 2:07 am Thursday, February 17, 2011

Daily News Staff

The Washington City Council voted unanimously Monday to adopt a stronger housing code for the city.
This new code allows the city to do more thorough inspections of homes within its limits, confirmed John Rodman, planning and development director for the city.
“With the new modifications it’s going to allow us to do much larger inspections,” Rodman said.
These inspections could take into account plumbing, ventilation, electric connections and other facets of home quality.
“It allows us to look at some of the structural integrity of the houses, whether it be interior or exterior,” Rodman explained.
Some highlights of the code follow:
• A housing unit can be inspected if five people sign a petition requesting an inspection.
• A housing unit can be inspected at the request of a tenant.
• A housing unit can be inspected at the request of an owner.
Neighbors, other residents or an inspector out on his rounds can report possible violations, according to Rodman.
The code also sets forth avenues of appeal for homeowners who believe they’ve been wrongly targeted by a code official.
The code is intended to be beneficial to all city residents, said Mayor Archie Jennings.
“This will go to protect people and residents in terms of having adequate and safe housing for everybody,” Jennings remarked.
Asked how the code would affect low-income renters or those who can’t afford immediate home repairs, Jennings said, “In fact, I think if you think the code modifications through in many cases it’s meant to protect those who don’t own their own home.”
He mentioned Councilman Doug Mercer’s call to attach a rental-property policy to the broader code, “and that’s to come,” Jennings added.
“We’ll always make an exception for a documented hardship case, and we’re willing to work with them on that,” the mayor said.
The new code more completely defines minimum-housing standards, a component of city regulation that officials have long said needed attention.
The old property code was “pretty useless,” then-City Manager James C. Smith told the Washington Daily News last summer.
“And we really need a more comprehensive housing-maintenance code,” Smith said.
Other city officials have been making similar statements for years.
The new code defines as “unfit for human habitation” homes that have: “Interior walls or vertical studs which seriously list, lean or buckle to such an extent as to render the dwelling unsafe,” floors with “improperly distributed loads” or a, “Lack of adequate ventilation, light, heating or sanitary facilities” to an extent that would place in jeopardy the health or safety of occupants or other residents.
The code allows the city to inspect homes within the city limits and homes within the city’s one-mile extraterritorial jurisdiction, Rodman said.
Asked to describe the impetus behind this tougher housing code, Rodman pointed to the condition of some structures in the city.
“It’s just that with some of the things going on, with the foreclosures and some of the things that are going on, it’s led to a lot of vacant structures, and some of the houses that we have are in poor conditions,” he commented.
Asked why he thought the new code was a good idea, Mercer replied by doing what other officials have done — pointing out the minimum housing code is just that, minimum.
“The housing code that the county administers is the North Carolina state housing codes,” Mercer said. “Those are the same basic codes that the city has.”
The city may adopt — in fact, has adopted — a code that goes beyond the state standards, Mercer indicated.
“We have so many houses in Washington that are essentially at the absolute minimum of the North Carolina standards,” he said. “The state codes are the minimum that’s acceptable. I think that we have a lot of houses in Washington that are just barely meeting the minimum. The city needs the authority to go in to ensure that, even though they are at the minimum per the state regulation, that the house is still a habitable facility.”
The Rev. David Moore is a former Beaufort County commissioner who has been involved with housing issues for years through Washington-based Metropolitan Housing and Community Development Corp.
Moore called the more-rigid city code “a start.”
“The minimum housing code around here has a lot to be desired,” he said. “There’s still a lot of places where I wouldn’t live, and I don’t think my standard is too high. I think it’s a start, and it hopefully will begin a dialogue so that landlords could begin to really look at their properties and make sure that they’re up to a minimum code at least. I think that’s a very positive step. Now, if the county could do something.”
Beaufort County has no minimum housing code in its unincorporated areas.
County Manager Paul Spruill has said the county has legal options for dealing with dilapidated buildings, while some housing advocates have countered that a minimum code would benefit county residents by addressing quality-of-life concerns.
Hood Richardson is a Beaufort County commissioner, an engineer and a land surveyor.
Richardson hadn’t heard about the new ordinance, but, on first hearing, he said the document sounded like “another example of socialistic bureaucracy.”
“It’s imposing a new burden on people,” he said. “It’s amazing to me the elected officials who want to tell somebody else how to live.”
He objected to the portion of the ordinance that lets five people petition to have a property inspected.
“If any five people can attack any citizen, that’s not a good thing,” Richardson said, adding, “It makes you wonder how they’re going to go about it if you don’t have the money to have your house repaired.”
He concluded, “Sounds like it was passed with the same kind of thought that went into the health-care bill. Nobody read it.”