Habitual offenders cost Capital City’s code compliance time and money

Habitual code violators report

PHOTOS:

TOPEKA, Kan. (KSNT) – Habitual weed and nuisance violations are costing the City of Topeka time and money. Six officers make nearly 13,000 visits to crumbling commercial buildings and neglected homes every year in a city that’s 60 square miles. We submitted a Kansas Open Records Act request (KORA) to the City of Topeka and obtained a spreadsheet labeled “Habitual code violators-2009-2013-cited 10 or more times”.  Basically, the list shows property owners who have received 10 or more weed or nuisance citations in the past four years.

In short, we found that the majority of properties with habitual weed and nuisance violations were rental homes. If you look at the list, you will see individual owners, management companies, and trusts listed as the owners for the vast majority of the properties. We contacted more than two dozen property owners by phone and/or mail to ask them to explain their violations. Not surprisingly, those who responded had the least number of violations on the list and almost all of their cases were labeled “CBO”, meaning “closed by owner”. They took care of the problem and no further action was required by the city.

“I would say 3% of the landlords are causing 98% of the problem. And it makes the rest of us look bad,” said Tom Benaka, a long time property owner and landlord in Topeka.

Kansas First News talked to two multiple-property owners in person and several others by phone about their properties’ violations, what they perceive the problems to be, and how, if at all, they can be resolved.

“It’s usually from a neighbor or something [who] will call in and say the grass is really high,” Jay Poore, a Topeka landlord told Kansas First News.

Sometimes tenants will take a couch or an upholstered chair and put them in the back yard to sit on or for the kids to play on. Then, the dog gets a hold of it and scraps are strewn about the yard according to him.

Poore says the significant majority of citations/violations he receives on his houses aren’t structural issues.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time it is either trash grass or non complaint furniture that’s on the front porch and stuff like that that needs taken care of,” Poore explained.

He first contacts the tenant and reminds them of their responsibility to mow the yard. If it’s trash, he brings it to their attention. The city has a 10 day grace period before issuing a penalty. If he’s written up, Poore charges his tenants a flat $150 fee. The majority of the time the tenant takes care of it, however sometimes they don’t.

“A couple days before the end of the grace period I’ll go clean it up and take care of it and charge them 50, 75 dollars or whatever so I don’t get the penalty,” he said.

Poore says it’s not fair to the neighbors for his tenants not to take care of the properties where they live. He fixes the things inside and keeps up the exterior of the house, however he says it’s the tenants’ responsibility to mow the yard and keep up with their trash. Poore thinks that in some ways, code compliance does landlords like him a favor.

“I’m kind of glad that code compliance is there to help me enforce that,” he said.

Poore stressed his appreciation for code enforcement officers and the work they do. However, he does take issue with the official process. His biggest complaint is getting what he describes as an expensive registered letter in the mail. He argues that it adds up.

“I pay taxes like everyone else and that certified letter costs $6.50 minimum. And I get a card in the mail, and then I have to go to the post office and sign for it twice and then I get the letter.”

Poore says paying for a registered letter gets the same results as if the code enforcement department picked up the phone and called him. Either way he says he’s going to take care of the issues. Poore says some of the code officers who know his properties will call or text him before writing it up. He says they’ve developed a good working relationship, and he’s proven that he will get it taken care of. However, he says other officers “feel the need to send a certified letter.” Poore agrees that if a property owner has a history of not taking care of issues, then the code enforcement officer does need a paper trail. He claims that most landlords willingly and quickly take care of it. If they don’t, and they fail to pay the fine, it’s tacked onto the real estate taxes they’re going to have to pay anyway.

Right or wrong, his argument does add up. In 2013 Topeka code enforcement sent out 10,215 first-class notifications (letters) at a cost of $4,698. Additionally, the department sent out 6,756 certified letters at a cost of $38,847. That’s $43,545.00 in postage for last year alone.

Topeka property owner and landlord Tom Benaka echoes Poore’s frustration with the city’s notification method.

“They’ve got door hangers they could use to let people know, but the registered letter seems to be the most important part of the process,” he said. “[The] best place to start is knock on the door and find out who’s living there and say you’ve got a problem, can you take care of it? Maybe give them some resolutions.”

Benaka recently got a registered letter about an upholstered chair on the front porch of one of his properties. By the time he picked the letter up and signed for it, the tenant had already removed the chair. He complains that it was a waste of $6.48 in postage. Benaka claims that the city has door hangers that code enforcement could use as the front line of defense. However, he says he hasn’t ever seen them used. Benaka says he typically gets a registered letter in the mail.

Still, he’s quick to praise the code enforcement officer for the Chesney Park neighborhood where he has a couple of houses. Benaka says some officers like him will talk to people first, before writing them up.

“Dennis, our code officer, is very good about that. He’ll talk to people and say, ‘That pile of stuff needs to go. Next weekend they [Chesney Park Neighborhood Association] have a dumpster over there and if you can get it over there, I won’t write it up today. I’ll come back next week.”

Benaka says that approach saves both time and money for the officer, the city, the landlord, and the tenant. He believes that often people will take care of things if you simply talk to them first.

We asked landlord Jay Poore if he personally checks his properties to monitor for potential violations, saving the city code enforcement officer the trouble.

“You know, I guess I could drive around every two or three weeks and look at all my properties. But, I don’t know…I trust my tenants,” he said.

Poore says he does take a minimum of three preventative steps. He talks to potential renters, looks at the previous place they stayed, and speaks to their former landlord However, Poore believes there’s really little that can be done to cut down on the citations.

“I think that’s the reality of rentals,” he said. “I don’t care if you have apartments. I’ve heard of people who have nice $150,000 home that they go over and the guy has torn his Harley apart in the living room.”

At the end of the day, he doesn’t see a real need for change. Code compliance is doing their job according to him, and landlords working with their tenants typically resolve the issues.

Benaka has properties in other neighborhoods, however 15 years ago he got involved with the Chesney Park Neighborhood Association. He challenges other landlords in the Capital City to have a greater interest in the properties they purchase and take a proactive approach to managing them.

“These rental properties are investments,” Benaka told Kansas First News. “Why would you not want to get involved with the neighborhoods and improve the neighborhoods that you have an investment in?”

Benaka believes the biggest problem in the city isn’t the weed or nuisance violations. He says it’s the abandoned lots and houses. Benaka says sometimes the biggest obstacle to overcome is figuring out who owns the property; it could be a faceless trust, in the name of a deceased person, or in the hands of a bank that hasn’t put its name on the property. According to him, the issue isn’t a lack of resources to help property owners; it’s a lack of communication between the city and residents.

We talked to him on the porch of a house that’s slated to be demolished in the Chesney Park neighborhood. A notice taped to the door reads that an upcoming hearing will determine the property’s future.

“This is sad that this house has been let go,” Benaka said. “Now it needs to be demolished.”

Benaka says the city and property owners need to catch homes and buildings before they get to that point. In stark contrast, a brand new home is being built on an empty lot right next door. Still, it’s going to take much more than that to turn Chesney Park and many other Topeka neighborhoods around.

Benaka fully supports the creation of a land bank; something that Capt. Scott and the city have discussed. Basically, a land bank is run by a public or private organization that holds abandoned properties for future development or disposal. It’s a method of managing properties that many cities and counties employ, including Kansas City, MO.

Benaka says when he received his property valuations for the year, only two properties went up in value. All of the others went down. He blames poverty for the ever declining property conditions in the Capital City.

“Topeka needs a full time neighborhood services director that’s willing to come out and communicate with the neighborhoods; get to know the neighborhoods, identify with their problems, and help find the resources for the people that need help,” Benaka argued.

City Manager Jim Colson does have an executive on loan from the police department that’s he’s placed in charge of code enforcement and neighborhood relations: Capt. Darin Scott. However, Benaka insists that Scott has his hands full with code. Not only that, he points out that Scott’s position is temporary. He argues that everything Capt. Scott has learned, will have to be re-learned by whomever takes his place permanently.

Benaka says individual property owners need someone who can help them access resources, complete paperwork, and “jump” through what can be very difficult “hoops”. He says some owners need a mentor, someone who can offer advice and guidance to improve their properties.

“The zoo gets promoted much better than our neighborhoods,” he complained.

Like Jay Poore before him, Benaka says code enforcement officers are easy to work with and the violations they cite are valid. Still, there seems to be a lack of change leading to progress.

“Everybody’s doing their job but nothing’s getting done,” Benaka told Kansas First News.

We asked him about his own property violations that were on the city’s list of habitual offenders we obtained. He had 21 citations from 2009 to 2013 on 14 different properties. Benaka says sometimes he catches potential violations before the code enforcement officer does. However, he notes that screening his tenants prevents a lot of problems.

“I have real good luck,” he said. I have good tenants.”

However, Benaka says landlords in the Capital City are having harder time screening applicants ever since Capital Investigative Service’s owners retired. He says there is no longer a local company to conduct the necessary checks. He’s now looking for a company in Kansas City.

Here is what the head of the city’s code enforcement division had to say:

“Many times the inspector knows the resident and works with them, including a phone call, e-mail, etc.  What Patty provided you was the process we would follow if it came to that. However, our ultimate goal is voluntary compliance.

For instance, we have a home owner who has a house in the 1900 block SW Clay. The homeowner has been willing and working with HND  and PMC to bring the property into compliance and couple of other  issues, so the owner can be assisted in demolition of this house.  Once the issues, which there has been due diligence involved, are brought to an acceptable level,  we have some voluntary demolition funds which come from Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds.  This helps the homeowner, the neighbor, and the city, which now doesn’t have to spend general fund money. Yes it takes time, but this is America.” – Capt. Darin Scott

Siglow Property Management owner James Roebuck has approximately 80 properties around the Capital City. He says he’s had rentals for 45 years. Roebuck says the code enforcement officers are mostly “good guys” who are just doing their job. He has a small crew with a foreman who he says take care of citations immediately when they are received. While he understands the argument that he is ultimately responsible, Roebuck says it’s tough to get around to all the properties every week. He claims that he and his crew often catch potential issues before a citation can even be issued.

Roebuck says he now avoids issues such as peeling paint on older homes by better insulating and putting vinyl siding on them. Additionally, his crews install new windows, improving the appearance of the house and also adding up to energy savings for his tenants.

City records show that from 2009 to 2013, Siglow Property Management received 67 citations. The majority of those are labeled “CBO”, meaning they were taken care of by the owner. Of the citations on his properties in the past four years, the city claims to have abated or taken care of four issues. However, Roebuck and his wife dispute that saying they were never charged and would have been if the city had abated their properties.

Roebuck says he once sat on a committee that helped craft the city property maintenance code. He worries that the new code with “teeth” will hurt business people rather than help clean-up individual owner’s properties. Roebuck believes that rental property owners are already targeted by code enforcement officers. He told Kansas First News that they know most large property owners quickly resolve any citation issues which he says makes them look good.

A second concern is the letters he receives for abandoned vehicles. Roebuck says since it is personal property, he is not legally able to address the issue. He argues that those letters should go directly to the car’s owners; not to him. Roebuck says it’s a fairly common occurrence for him to receive a letter on an abandoned vehicle at one of his properties.

Another owner says she works a full time job along with managing her properties. She says most of her tenant’s violations were for not mowing their grass. If necessary, she has a mowing service come in and mow to avoid the $100 fine levied by the city. She says she can pay $30 to have a lawn mowed and save $200 in fines and administrative fees. Most of her properties are in the Highland Crest area. She claims to have a great relationship with the code enforcement officer for her area and says he’s good to work with. Ultimately, she places blame on tenants saying it’s their responsibility to mow according to the lease they signed. She tells Kansas First News that she’s already mowed her own home’s lawn this spring.

After a dozen citations in the past four years, most of them for a house at 1309 SW Washburn Avenue, Carl Broxterman says he and his siblings took mowing tenants’ yards into their own hands. They own the homes collectively, however they have divided the mowing duties. Each sibling is responsible for mowing a particular property, and if they don’t, they bear the responsibility if the city comes calling. Broxterman says that has cut down on the number of citations they’ve received for weeds/nuisances on their properties. He tells Kansas First News that he has a sincere interest in improving properties, wanting to keep his homes in conditions he would want to live in.

Broxterman says he and his siblings don’t want their properties to be a blight on the neighborhoods they’re located in. In fact, he says he bought one depressed property and invested $20,000 in it to improve the house. He says the biggest problem they experience is that sometimes they will have purchased a property to work on or be in the process, and people use the lot as a dumping ground. Broxterman says that’s not an excuse, however sometimes city code enforcement officers see the problem before he does.

Property owner Dennis Barnes says it makes him sick to be included on the list of “habitual offenders”. He says while there are people who don’t care about their properties, he does. Barnes says those who work in code compliance are nice people, something echoed by almost every property owner who returned our phone calls and letters.  He and his wife barely made the list with 10 citations for weeds/nuisances in the past four years.

One property owner had an interesting reason behind some of his citations. He told Kansas First News that he had a property with a construction loan. Another bank bought his loan, however they told him they did not back construction loans. Unable to pay it, he claims he turned the property over to the bank. However, the bank did not have the property taken out of his name. As far as the city is concerned, he is still the owner of record and liable for any property maintenance code violations. Now, he’s mowing a yard that he no longer owns.

James Wood of Wood Enterprises owns and operates Caravan Mobile Park in Topeka on NW Highway 24. Because he has the property mowed, he says grass is not an issue. Wood claims the citations he receives are for the damage done mostly by copper thieves, also known as scrappers. Rarely are his mobile homes empty for more than a few days, however he says in the short time their vacant, thieves break in and rip out anything that’s of worth. He often has to deal with replacing broken windows. Wood claims to have caught hundreds of potential violations and taken care of them before a code inspector had to issue a citation. Although he lives in Ogden and has 180 rentals, Wood says he stays on top of them.  Still, he’s had nearly 50 citations which he says were most likely nuisance violations and not weed related.

More than a dozen central air units were stolen from his properties not long ago. He estimates that he’s lost about $40,000 because of theft and damage in the past few years. Tired of the ongoing acts of vandalism and burglary, Wood says he’s investing nearly $10,000 in an automated entrance gate and spending thousands more on a video surveillance system for the mobile home park. Wood says he’s intent on catching the criminals.

Here is what Harry Hauschild with AASI Enterprise, LLC wrote to Kansas First News concerning his company’s violations:

“While I would not say the code violation notices I have received are unjustified, most often they are temporary/short term situations that are easily corrected and resolved.

They usually are  in regard to brush/weed overgrowth, or trash/debris in yard, both of which are lease agreement violations, but often hard to enforce when you have an un co-operative and untidy  tenant.  Finding quality tenants in a low income rental market is a challenge, but my goal is to provide desirable/affordable single family rental dwellings for lower income families and individuals. The appeal and appearance of my investment property is always a concern and I  try to maintain same at a level that meets or exceeds the standard of the respective neighborhood/area where the property is located.”

 

 

 

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