N.O. City Council approves sweeping code enforcement changes

Carpet in bathrooms, substantially peeling paint and cracks in foundation walls all will be punishable by fine under a sweeping rewrite of the New Orleans code enforcement ordinance the City Council approved Thursday. The new rules place stricter property maintenance standards on buildings and allow the city to levy fines against property owners who don’t comply with the rules.

The changes 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 was proposed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration in March as part of an effort to reduce blight in New Orleans by 10,000 properties by 2014.

City Council President Stacy Head, who co-authored the measure, called the ordinance a “welcome first step toward amending the code to allow the administration more reasonable and effective tools to combat blight.”

But Head said she was not entirely pleased with the approved law and believed the council might need to “tweak” it with amendments in the coming months.

“I want to be very clear that there are some other items that have not yet been resolved,” Head said. “To the people who still have concerns, you are not alone. We all still have concerns. We are going to make a good product better and we look forward to your advice as we do that along the way.”

Under the revisions, all properties must meet broad requirements related to exterior and interior maintenance, safety and sanitation.

The rules give code inspectors the go-ahead to be on the lookout for structures with rodent infestations, tall grass, rotting wood and defective plumbing. Efficiency rental units that don’t include cooking appliances and refrigerators, bathroom floors that aren’t made of a “smooth, hard, nonabsorbent surface” and properties with “substantial” peeling paint and cracks can also draw citations.

The ordinance gives inspectors with the Division of Code Enforcement the ability to enter any land, structure or premises they have “reasonable cause” to believe is in violation of the code and it empowers hearing officers to order demolition at an initial hearing.

“These revisions are long overdue and will allow us to increase efficiency and create stronger, more flexible enforcement options for all properties, including substandard living conditions in occupied properties,” Landrieu said in a statement. “My priority is to provide a strong quality of life for all New Orleanians as we continue to make progress toward reducing the number of blighted properties in the city.”

The changes have been met with opposition from residents concerned that the new rules are too strict and might penalize low-income and elderly property owners who don’t have the wherewithal to pull off speedy renovations and whose properties might not be blighted, but simply in need of minor repair.

“It’s not clear to me that the problems the revisions are intended to solve are actually going to solve the problems,” said James Uschold, a lawyer who specializes in tax sales and blighted and distressed property issues. “I also think it may cause more problems.”

Uschold said property owners would be burdened by fines for things like improperly graded lots, cracked sidewalks and peeling paint and ultimately still unable to make repairs.

“Do we really want to impose thousands of dollars of fines on them and then seize those properties for what may be pretty minor violations?” Uschold asked council members.

Head said she did have some concern about the breadth of the ordinance. She said she has seen code inspectors pass on low-hanging fruit — structures that are badly blighted or near collapse, for instance — and seize on those that “reasonable minds” would argue shouldn’t be cited or demolished.

Councilman James Gray expressed a similar concern.

“This ordinance can be a great thing for the city of New Orleans, but it also can be a terrible thing if abused by people who are put there to enforce it,” Gray said. “I think always we rely on good judgment and the fairness of those charged with the law. I just want to emphasize that that is of critical importance here.”

In an attempt to assuage concern, give guidance to inspectors and insulate property owners from being written up for minor offenses, Head added the word “substantial” to provisions about peeling paint and cracks.

“We are not trying to solve all of the ills in the housing stock and the building stock in the city of New Orleans,” Head said. “This is only a minimum housing standard. There are other things that need to be done to combat blight and to assure that particularly our rental stock is in good shape.”

The proposed ordinance replaces 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.

At a committee meeting last month, Head said the council was likely extend the old ordinance at least through October to allow more time for public comment on some of the law’s more contentious provisions and to avoid passing the measure with “a lot of sloppy amendments.”

But Head said Thursday that stakeholders were able to reach “universal agreement on some changes” earlier this week that allowed the measure to move forward even though there remain a few items to work out, including the creation of a more transparent lien waiver process.

The council approved the ordinance along with eight amendments. Head introduced an amendment to extend to five days from three days the period during which a property owner has to reply to a hearing notice.

Another Head amendment limits the time a property can remain boarded to six months, but allows code enforcement officials to grant exceptions to older structures and those with architectural or historical significance.

The change was requested by residents who wanted rules about boarding and mothballing applied differently from neighborhood to neighborhood.