Every year, Northside PRIDE canvasses its "target area" to compile a list of properties that have flagrant code violations. We have done this for the last four years, forwarding the results to the Department of Development as a request for home inspections.
Our list is short. It consists of about 15 properties out of the 113 that constitute our "target area," and identifies only the most egregious of code violations: derelict homes that have been vacant and in decline for years; windows covered with plywood in occupied apartments; exteriors only partially painted. In short, we concentrate on severe physical and visual code violations.
PRIDE performs this task because we believe that we can make significant changes to our "target area"; we believe that we can transform our neighborhood.
Sadly, everyone of those four years has resulted in disappointed expectations. Over 75 percent of those properties have been on every list for the last four years and they are there for the same code violations. Any reasonable person would be forced to ask "Why?"
How can any property owner flout housing code violations that the rest of us are subject to and attempt to correct? How can they abrogate their ethical and legal obligations both to the city and to the neighborhood in which they have chosen to live and invest. Is Jamestown becoming a dual-class city of property ownership composed of those who try their best to maintain their properties according to city law and those who feel they are above the law?
Housing inspectors have told me that 95 percent of all cited properties are brought into compliance within the time frame allotted them. I believe that percentage is valid and one that our inspection team can be proud of.
However, I can't help but wonder how much of it is made up of violations that are easily corrected: unkempt lawns? trash removal How much is made up of violations that are more expensive to correct, but will be corrected because the owner is a responsible steward of his property? And, finally, how much is made up of those owners who have been persistently lax in obeying the city's housing code laws?
I applaud that 95 percent who obey the laws and bring their properties into compliance, often through personal and financial sacrifice. It is the highly visible and often unsafe 5 percent that concern me.
An impressive 95 percent success rate does not mitigate a 5 percent compliance failure.
Some local investors maintain that the majority of code violations are caused by tenants. There are undoubtedly some careless and irresponsible renters that cause interior destruction. I suspect, however, that the average tenant does not take a sledgehammer to his entrance walk, making it dangerous and unsightly, and he does not get on a ladder and remove shingles, causing unsafe roof conditions. These violations, and others, are the responsibilities of the home investor.
Property investment in Jamestown is a big business that generates much-needed tax revenue into the city and distributes rental income back into the community. It should also be a responsible business.
Any conscientious homeowner knows that old homes require maintenance. Investors need to realize that their property speculation carries with it legal liabilities. They need to conform to city housing codes. After all, they chose this manner of augmenting their incomes; they chose the renters that they complain about; and they should be held accountable for their business choices.
Another reason for the terrible lag in code compliance seems to be favored by the folks at City Hall. I frequently hear the important legal maxim of "due process" cited, that everyone deserves "his day in court." But I believe it has become "years in court" in Jamestown.
When does "due process" morph into another equally valid legal concept called "justice delayed is justice denied"?
Consider it from the viewpoint of the responsible owner who maintains his property and does his civic and neighborhood duty by reporting the house across the street for code violations. He sees no concrete changes so he reports the same violation the next year, and the next, and the next. Soon he will question why he should maintain his property when others flout the law. His final step, if he can afford it, will be to attempt to sell his home and move to one of many outlying districts.
Our loss is significant. We lose people who were important assets to our neighborhoods and to Jamestown but have been forced to choose between an emotional attachment and a pragmatic reality. We lose potential homebuyers who question the wisdom of buying in a city where their investment very well might decline rather than appreciate in value. What a terrible and unnecessary waste!
In the meantime, Northside Pride will, for the fifth time, canvass its "target area" and write a report to be sent to the Department of Development, and countless responsible homeowners will report the derelict property across the street. All hope for timely remedies, remedies that will never come until our city leaders and our courts explore and adopt a process that will solve the serious problem of code compliance.
All of Jamestown's neighborhoods await that day.
Bob Doverspike is a northside homeowner of Jamestown, a founding member of Northside PRIDE, and its past president for the last five years.