You Asked: Getting the house in order

Published 1:02 am Thursday, July 28, 2011

When is something going to be done about all the falling down houses in the city? I thought a new regulation had been passed and something was going to be done about them.

In February, the Washington City Council voted unanimously to adopt a beefed-up minimum housing code for the city.

This house near the corner of Bridge and Second streets was pursued by the City of Washington as a demolition-by-neglect case. It was determined the house could be repaired, and the city would sell the property to someone who could restore it. (WDN Photo/Jonathan Clayborne)

At the time, it was said the code would allow the city to do more thorough home inspections within its limits.
Among the highlights of the code were these stipulations:

  • 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.

But, in recent days, some residents have wondered aloud what’s being done to put the newly adopted code in force.

So, what is the city doing to clean up dilapidated properties?

The Washington Planning Board has given city code-enforcement officials a list of about 25 substandard houses prioritized in terms of which ones need to be tackled first, related John Rodman, the city’s planning and development director.

The city already is doing more housing inspections when it does “utility transfers,” he said, referring to inspections triggered before lights can be switched on at a rental property, for instance. These stepped-up inspections are a direct result of the new housing code.

Since the council adopted the code, the city has written two letters to property owners informing them they need to remove out-of-code structures that are beyond repair.

Officials anticipate sending more such letters in the coming weeks, Rodman said.

“In the past we were being more reactive; in other words, we weren’t really looking at any houses until we got a complaint,” he commented.

In recent weeks, city-retained crews brought down the shell of what was to be a church on Park Drive. The city hired the lowest responsible bidder to perform the demolition.

The steel skeleton of the building had languished unfinished for years. County tax records showed a deed-transfer date related to the property could be traced back to Oct. 29, 1993.

In late 2009, the city condemned the structure as unsafe, fearing it might lead to accidents and injuries.

The structure was deemed a health hazard under a state statute, Rodman related. It was deemed a hazard because its concrete footings were being undermined and washed out. The entire structure — girders, roof and all — were in danger of collapse, he confirmed.

The council has yet to adopt a proposed nonresidential maintenance code that could be used to address problems like the one presented by the church shell.

These things take time, indicated Washington Councilman Bobby Roberson. Roberson is a retired Washington city planner.

“A lot of people believe just because a property looks bad you can go and take it down within 60 days,” he said, adding there are state-prescribed procedures in place — steps that have to be taken before refurbishing or demolition occurs, if it happens at all.

“It’s not as easy as people think it is,” Roberson concluded.