Curb nuisance and blight with technology, courts and creativity

​It takes creativity and resourcefulness to enforce building codes — and sometimes a few years of experience.

Jacob Peabody, zoning and codes administrator for the City of Clemson, and Buddy Skinner, building codes administrator for the City of Greenville and president of the Building Officials Association of South Carolina, shared some ways to take on nuisances and blight at the Municipal Association’s Hometown Legislative Action Day in Columbia.

Track down absentee landlords. In the City of Clemson, officials have a method for dealing with landlords who live out of state or won’t accept the city’s certified mail. Peabody said staff will ask the local police department to issue a criminal summons, because violating Clemson’s rental ordinance is a criminal offense.

That summons is sent to the municipality where it is believed the landlord lives, and that municipality’s local police force serves the individual the court summons to appear in court where the property is located.

“You need cooperation,” said Peabody.

Be consistent. Check the whole street. Don’t stop at the first, most obviously noncompliant property. Otherwise, you may get a phone call that, “‘Well, Joe Blow down the street, his grass is higher than mine,’” Skinner said.

“Do everything the same,” he said. “Follow the guidelines, and you’re safe. If you miss a step, it’s going to bite you.”

Have a helpful attitude. “This is a hard job,” said Skinner. “But you can still help people and enforce the code. …  You can help people find alternate means, methods and materials. You can find them help, but you still can do your job.”

College town? Limit non-relatives per rental house. In its traditional neighborhoods, the City of Clemson allows no more than two people who are not in the same family to live together. There are no strikes. One violation results in appearing before city officials where the rental license may be revoked.

“We take occupancy in our community very, very seriously,” said Peabody. “You don’t want to be raising your kids right next to a frat house. It is effective, because it’s making it so the rentals in these neighborhoods are families renting it rather than a bunch of unrelated people renting one house and just renting out all the rooms.”

The city has other separate zoning districts that allow higher occupancy levels. Peabody said the program was initially difficult to start and that it took time to bring properties into compliance, but it is working smoothly now, and new properties are being added.

Four strikes rule.
In the City of Clemson, landlords get a rental housing license, pay a yearly fee, and undergo yearly property inspections to ensure the presence of smoke detectors, no visible defects, functional windows in all bedrooms and other basic standards. Peabody said the code helps the city weed out slum lords.

If a landlord lives far away, he must designate someone within 75 miles to be the person to whom the city can issue summons, complaints and other official communications. If a property accumulates four local, state or federal violations within two years, the landlord or designee must appear before city council and possibly lose his rental housing license for one year.

The city also gives landlords sample lease language to help them fight problem renters and follow the proper procedures to expel their tenants, if necessary. Peabody said officials give consideration to landlords who clearly have problem tenants and are working to evict them.
“The same properties that cause police issues are often the same properties that have code issues,” he said.

“We had a property that had several noise complaints, a stabbing, and junk and debris in the yard.” That was enough to bring the landlord before city officials for a revocation hearing and ultimately a one-year license revocation. If the individual is caught violating the revocation, the city imposes an additional three months moratorium.

Use the court system as a means to compliance. Fines aren’t the goal — bringing properties up to code is.
“We’ll be glad to work with you if you work with us,” Skinner said, describing the city’s approach to delinquent property owners. “We’ll give you more time if you show us improvement.”
After all, the city doesn’t gain anything from fining a property owner, said Skinner.

Most of the time, however, when a judge threatens an offender with contempt of court if the violation is not remedied in 30 days, the property owner is motivated to make an effort.
But be prepared to spend money to bring properties into compliance. Every case will not be resolved, so cities must set aside resources to improve properties that have slipped below code.

“I’ve worked with budgets from $10,000 to $100,000. You can work within any realm of that,” said Skinner. “If this guy’s not going to cut his grass, you have to enforce that code, and you have to go cut that grass. If there’s a house to be torn down, and you’ve taken it as far as you can take it, you’ve got to tear it down, and you have got to have some money to do it.”

Embrace teamwork.
The City of Greenville has regular meetings that bring together officials from various departments, including police, fire, legal, code enforcement and community development.

“What we realized was a lot of our problems were the same,” said Skinner. “The police were going to the same residences, community development was working on the same things, but none of us were talking.”

Technology can help. The City of Greenville is in the early stages of implementing a mobile enforcement program, which will allow the city’s field staff to access its database from the field using an iPad.

“This program allows my staff to document violations and add their comments, pictures and other notes about the violation while at the location,” said Skinner. “These comments are then automatically transferred to our live data system.”

The system uses an app called Long Range in conjunction with programming developed by the city’s software provider.

“Our plan will ultimately cut out about 80 percent of our paper use by eliminating history reports, action logs, hand written violation notices and other documents that will all be electronic,” said Skinner.

While smaller towns may not have the technology to do this, he said, code administrators should incorporate as much technology as possible to help collect and retrieve information to prepare for court appearances and to address complaint calls.

The annual meeting of the Building Officials Association of South Carolina will be May 7-10  in North Myrtle Beach. For more information, contact Scott Slatton at, 803.933.1203.