City of Topeka set to double code enforcement violations

Houses are seen in the 2400 block of S. Kansas Avenue. Between 1900 and 2900 S. Kansas, city code inspectors have 13 active cases and the city cracks down on blight along major streets. (Luke Ranker/The Capital-Journal)

Topeka property owners with blighted houses will likely receive twice as many citations this year.

 

The spike — from 1,600 housing cases in 2016 to a goal of 3,200 this year — isn’t due to an increase in blight in the city. Instead code enforcement officers are working more efficiently to tackle violations, said Mike Haugen, city property maintenance manager. At the end of last week inspectors had opened nearly 9,000 cases in total, including overgrown weeds, graffiti, parked cars and sanitation issues. More than 2,000 of those cases were housing code violations, he said.

Inspectors are concentrating efforts on properties along the city’s major arteries, like Kansas Avenue, Topeka Boulevard and 17th Street.

“They’re our gateways,” Haugen said. “That’s what everyone sees when they come to our city.”

As A.J. Rivera pushed a lawnmower through thick grass one afternoon, he said the city recently cited the home on S. Kansas Avenue for an overgrown yard. Rivera planned to clean up the yard before the city issued a fine, but said taking care of the property had taken a backseat to other priorities.

Along with caring for his mother, who has trouble walking because of a disability, and a sister, Rivera must make regular appointments at the Colmery-O’Neil VA Medical Center for his own disability.

“It’s tough when you have to get people to doctor appointments and work,” he said.

Prior to receiving a notice in the mail, Rivera said he didn’t know the grass had become a code violation. City code says grass can’t exceed one foot in height.

If Rivera hadn’t mowed his lawn within 10 days of receiving the citation, he could have been fined $106 or more than $350 if the city had mowed it. Citations for sanitation issues can exceed $1,000 depending on the issue, Haugen said. Housing code violations are also costly.

Haugen said the city is willing to work with property owners, especially since violations can carry steep fines along with the cost of maintenance.

“We don’t want to take money out of their pockets when we’re asking them to fix their house with that same money,” he said.

Homeowners who fall into certain low income categories are eligible for assistance through a number of city programs, said Monique Glaudé, director of community engagement for the city. Those who make less than 60 percent of the median income can get help with emergency repairs like furnace and water heater replacement and roof repairs. Programs are also available for those with mobility issues.

Because of the city’s older housing stock, a large number of homes with chipped and faded exteriors paint have lead-based paint. Removing that paint can be costly, and there are no city-sponsored funds to offset the cost, she said.

“We desperately need some local lead-based paint experts to donate their services to assist in this effort of helping our neighbors who are unable to help themselves,” she said.

This year Haugen’s department began sending property owners with code violations a letter explaining the violation during the winter. Those letters gave violators about a 120-day window to fix the problem before inspectors return. That policy has helped the department, which has eight inspectors, work more efficiently and quickly, he said.

Though Rivera described his overgrown lawn citation as “not a big deal,” Haugen said many people react negatively to code violations. He stressed that such warnings and citations are about improving the community’s image.

“When you start to see blight and rundown properties, you tell the criminal element you don’t care about your neighborhood and they’re welcome there,” he said.

 

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