N.O. council delays new code-enforcement law

A proposed rewrite of the city’s code enforcement ordinance that aims to impose stricter standards on occupied buildings won’t be complete before the current law expires in August, allowing more time for public input and revisions, City Council President Stacy Head said Monday.

The revised ordinance had been expected to go before the full council for a vote at its next meeting so that the ordinance could be in place by September, but a number of matters were still unresolved Monday at the end of a meeting of the council’s Committee on Housing and Human Needs. As a result, Head said, the current law will likely be extended.

Issues that are still unresolved include what specifically will designate a residential or commercial property as noncompliant with city code, and whether rules about boarding and mothballing structures should be applied differently from neighborhood to neighborhood based on the area’s market conditions.

“I am concerned about voting for this at the next council meeting,” said Head, the committee’s chair. “I think we’ll end up with a lot of sloppy amendments.”

There is agreement on about 85 percent of the proposed changes to the law, Head said. Under consideration is a proposal to expand the city code to specify a wide range of “minimum property maintenance standards” that apply not just to vacant buildings, but also to occupied commercial and residential spaces. The revision is part of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s effort to reduce blight in New Orleans by 10,000 properties by 2014.

The city can levy fines against properties that don’t comply with the rules.

The proposed ordinance is being drafted to replace a short-term code enforcement law put in place following Hurricane Katrina to address unoccupied blighted properties damaged during and after the storm. That ordinance expired in March and was extended through Aug. 31. Head said the new measure could go before the full council in October, which would require another extension.

In a public meeting Monday, residents questioned whether all code infractions should be viewed the in the same way.

One provision, for instance, says “the floor of every bathroom or toilet room shall be maintained to be a smooth, hard, nonabsorbent surface to permit such floor to easily be kept in a clean and sanitary condition.”

James Uschold, a lawyer who specializes in tax sales and blighted and distressed property issues, said the language would make carpeted bathrooms noncompliant with the law. He questioned whether that should be something for which the city could fine or otherwise penalize property owners. Uschold suggested the city use a three-level approach to evaluate compliance. The first level would involve issuing a certificate of occupancy to compliant properties. Structures that have “substantial noncompliance,” such as peeling paint, could receive something similar to a $50 traffic ticket. In the last category would be those properties that don’t meet minimum standards and are blighted. Only those should be subject to expropriation or demolition, Uschold said.

In a heated exchange Monday with Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, Joe Lacefield, who owns rental property in Central City, objected to a provision that would require “efficiency units” to be equipped with “cooking appliance and refrigeration facilities.”

Lacefield said he stopped providing refrigerators and stoves in the apartments he owns because they were repeatedly stolen.

“If you make me provide them with these things, they’re going to be stolen every time,” Lacefield said. “That’s a business model that I cannot do.”

Cantrell said she was open to discussing the provision, but said the council must be mindful that poverty-stricken New Orleanians might not be able to afford appliances of their own. She also suggested he put mechanisms in place to guard against theft.

“People come and go, they come and go,” Lacefield said, adding that some of his tenants are short-term renters who don’t sign lease agreements. “How am I going to have a safeguard to stop somebody from taking a refrigerator at midnight?”

Donald Vallee, president of the New Orleans Landlord Association, likened the city’s attempt to require landlords to provide appliances to dictating that they also hang curtains on windows and in bathroom showers. “Those types of things are typically not provided,” Vallee said.