Home, decaying home
City's affordable housing squeeze means code violations are often ignored

By Andy Alford
Thursday, May 05, 2005
(Story originally published in the Austin American-Statesman on December 16, 2002)

A few weeks ago, there was more wrong with Anita Hall's East 22nd Street house than there was right.
Built in the 1940s, the 648-square-foot clapboard home still stood but was in desperate need of an overhaul. Over the course of about 60 years, the natural minerals in Austin water had built up inside the kitchen and bathroom pipes — slowly turning them to stone and choking off the passage of water and wastewater — leaving Hall with a toilet that wouldn't clear and sinks that wouldn't drain.
A slow bathtub leak had rotted out much of the bathroom floor. To top it off, the home's electrical wiring was antique, lacking the grounded circuit breakers that protect modern homes.
Despite the deficiencies, City of Austin structural-code compliance officers have never cited Hall, an unemployed, single mother of two teenage sons, for keeping an unsafe or substandard domicile. And barring any complaints, it's likely the city never will.
Ignoring the obvious, residents and code enforcement officers alike drive by apartments and houses every day that don't meet the housing standards code. The code requires all Austin homes to maintain basic safety and sanitation standards, including intact garages, sheds, roofs, walls and floors, and working sewer and water lines. But the city rarely actively cites property owners in all but the most egregious instances.
The practice of passive code enforcement is Austin's way of duct taping a persistent problem. The city, like others across the country, faces a quandary: How does the city abate substandard housing without causing the massive dislocation of poor families? Austin — which for years has been losing affordable housing faster than it can be replaced — has yet to find a tenable solution.
The poor have few options in a city where even middle-class residents felt squeezed by a housing crunch brought on by hordes of newcomers and an economic boom that inflated real estate prices. So instead of sweeping through neighborhoods and demanding that low-income residents vacate homes they can't afford to repair, code compliance inspectors address substandard housing only when they get complaints.
Homeowners such as Hall, who lives in an older neighborhood of mostly low-income residents, rarely target each other for citations.
"I couldn't afford to pay a plumber. With my income, there was no way," Hall said. The median household income in Hall's neighborhood was $25,829 in 1999, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, compared with a $42,689 median household income citywide.
Hall got help to fix her plumbing, rotted floors and wiring from the Urban League, where she is taking job training courses.
Without a systematic inspection system, there's no way to specify the extent of Austin's substandard housing. The number of complaints — 1,163 in the city's 2001-02 fiscal year — has remained steady over the past few years, code compliance officers say.
Complaints are evenly split among areas east and west of Interstate 35, from well-kept neighborhoods with high standards to obviously blighted areas.
Austin's unwritten, by-complaint-only policy is common among mid-size cities but rife with flaws, urban planners point out. For example, poor renters will often endure unsafe and unsanitary conditions rather than report a slumlord and risk retaliatory eviction.
What's a city to do?
"Cities generally don't have the resources to add to the affordable housing stock and relieve the pressure," said Chester Hartman, director of the Washington-based Poverty & Race Research Action Council, which funds research on race and poverty issues.
"They don't want to enforce a code that would dislocate poor families," Hartman added. "It's better to live in a substandard unit than to be out on the street."
Affordable housing is defined as housing for which residents spend no more than 30 percent of their incomes on rent or mortgage payments. With median rents in Austin of $724 a month, according to the census, affordable homes are particularly scarce for households earning less than half of Austin's median annual household income, which was $42,689 in 1999.
Hartman, who wrote "City for Sale: The Transformation of San Francisco," said cities could solve their substandard housing problems by increasing the supply and availability of safe, affordable housing for low-income residents.
Hartman said he favors the type of actions taken by San Francisco to keep housing affordable. To slow spiraling housing costs, San Francisco established rent controls; limits on when and how property owners can convert moderately priced apartments into condos; and eviction controls that require property owners to show cause, such as a lease violation, before tenants can be evicted.
Texas law is ambiguous on the issue of rent control. The only statute on point implies that Texas cities may establish rent controls only during disasters and then only with the governor's consent. However, rent controls are not expressly forbidden in other cases.
Some Austin community activist groups have proposed rent controls as a way to stem gentrification in inner city neighborhoods but have yet to persuade lawmakers.
Dick Brown, the City of Austin's new lobbyist and the former head of the Texas Municipal League, said Austin has been the only Texas city he knows of that has had serious discussions about the issue. "Every time occupancy rates get above 90 percent, somebody starts talking rent control," he said.
Austin City Council Member Danny Thomas said the city must attempt to improve the quality of housing in low-income neighborhoods without encouraging gentrification that would price low-income residents out of their neighborhoods. "Some of the reasons why those houses are as they are is because (homeowners) can't pay taxes," Thomas said.
Austin shouldn't count on the federal government for additional help, said Thomas, who recently met with officials at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. "HUD says the city has to get more involved," he said. "They are requiring us to put more money upfront.
"Facing a possible $50 million deficit in the 2003-04 fiscal year, the council will be challenged to find additional money for housing repair programs. "It's an uphill battle," Thomas said, "but, hopefully, we'll get there."
"The economics of the housing world are out of whack," said John Henneberger, co-director of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, a nonprofit research and advocacy center in Austin that works on behalf of poor people and their housing needs in Texas.
Ideally, low-interest, long-term loans would be available to help property owners rehabilitate owner-occupied and rental properties for low-income residents, Henneberger said.
But in Austin, most repair assistance is directed to homeowners, leaving very little assistance for landlords who want to repair their low-cost rental properties.
Even so, the number and amount of loan and grant awards — such as the emergency home-repair assistance awarded to Hall — have dwindled.
For example, the City of Austin is eliminating one rehabilitation loan program that last year provided $550,000 in loans to low-income homeowners and landlords who rented to low-income tenants.
Remaining house-repair assistance programs cater specifically to owner-occupied home needs. They include the Urban League's emergency repair program, for which the city set aside $800,000 in federal grants for the 2002-03 fiscal year, and the city's Homeowner Rehabilitation Loan Program.
Money for the low-interest loan program, $1.1 million for 2002-03, comes from federal housing dollars.
By comparison, the city has allocated $3 million, a mix of city and federal money, for building new homes and for assisting low-income and first-time home buyers.
"The city has shifted its focus to down payment assistance programs for home buyers with much higher incomes," Henneberger said. The lack of money to help very low-income homeowners maintain their homes combined with Austin's infamously high rental rates, he said, leaves Austin's poor with few choices.
"You're going to have to go to something that's below the radar screen, something substandard," Henneberger said.
A growing concern
U.S. census data show Austin's population grew 41 percent to 656,562 residents from 1990 to 2000, yet the city didn't add to the ranks of its seven code compliance officers. Austin also added 56,672 homes within the city limits, a 28 percent increase, for a total 276,611 homes in 2000.
The officers, who averaged 166 cases each in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, are responsible for ensuring that the city's 1994 housing and dangerous building codes are applied to houses, apartments, commercial buildings, detached garages and other such accessory buildings; access to swimming pools, hotels, motels, dorms and boarding houses; and any structure damaged by fires.
Of the 1,163 cases handled by code compliance officers, about 93 percent have been or are in the process of being addressed voluntarily by the property owners.
The remainder — 86 cases — were forwarded to Austin's Building Standards Commission for enforcement, resulting in a total of $13,075 in noncompliance fines. And of the commission cases, 25 have resulted in demolition orders.
"As long as you're complying, we'll work with you. We're not in this to beat people up," inspector Matthew Christianson said. But if property owners don't comply, they can be subject to criminal fines of as much as $2,000 a day and civil fines of as much as $1,000 a day.
City records show a few apartments listed among the substandard residence complaints forwarded to the commission, but many more complaints were against vacant single-family homes and those where no heirs had taken responsibility for probated property.
Senior code compliance officer Jonathan Josephson recently visited one such vacant home in South Austin, in the Barton Hills neighborhood west of Lamar Boulevard and south of Town Lake.
Three feet from the exposed wiring on the house's front wall, a Barbie doll stood propped on a porch rail. The house's back doors were unlocked, and windows were broken. One wall of the house had exposed pipes. A child's bike leaned against the backyard fence.
Without a warrant Josephson couldn't do much more than look through the windows and leave a citation for the owner on the front door. Austin police had referred the case to him, and Josephson, who works about 50 active cases at a time, now has to find out who owns the property and whether anyone has permission to live there.
"I'll be back," he said.
For the poor who live in substandard homes, options are few.
The Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corp., a nonprofit home builder, uses government grants and private donations to build and sell homes to low-income clients. The Urban League contracts with the city to offer the emergency home-repair program, which helped more than 500 low-income homeowners such as Hall in the last fiscal year.
Depending on how serious the need, Urban League clients may wait more than a year for help, which comes in grants averaging $984 each. The city-run Austin Housing Finance Corp. offers low-interest home rehabilitation loans in an attempt to preserve affordable housing in Austin.
For the city, demolishing houses, even substandard ones, is not a task that should be taken lightly, cautions Henneberger. A house is often a family's greatest financial asset, affecting family stability and the life outcomes of children. Homeownership helps families create a range of economic, social and political opportunities and helps to stabilize neighborhoods.
"It's money in the bank. It's financial security," Henneberger said. "When somebody loses their house to code enforcement or that kind of thing, that's a tremendous financial tragedy for them, for their kids. . . . It's a financial disaster."

aalford@statesman.com; 445-1774

Substandard enforcement
Austin city code requires all homes to maintain basic safety and sanitation standards. City inspectors address substandard housing on a complaint basis.
There's no way to tell how much substandard housing Austin has, but the city logged 1,163 complaints in the 2001-02 fiscal year. Examples of substandard conditions include:
Structural deterioration
Electrical hazards
Plumbing hazards
Abandoned/open structures
Deteriorated garages, carports and sheds
Fire-damaged structures

Original Austin American-Statesman article may be seen at
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