Bed bugs. Cockroaches. Busted pipes. Those are a few of the apartment problems Paige Charbonnet, executive director of Las Vegas Trail Rise, has heard from residents in the community. LVTRise often helps residents work through code violations in their living spaces and connects them to the right resources.
“We hear kind of the gamut of different things,” Charbonnet said.
As new multifamily developments continue to pop up across Fort Worth, the city’s multifamily inspection team is struggling to keep up with inspections.
Since 2004, the number of units across the city has increased from over 63,000 to 99,987 units. But the number of inspectors has increased from only four to seven during that same time period.
“They’re just popping up like crazy,” said Veronica Tristan, a code compliance supervisor over the multifamily rental registration and inspection program.
To accommodate the need for more officers, the code compliance department has requested seven additional inspectors, a $786,000 request that will be primarily funded through the rental fees owed by apartment managers and owners to the city. This also includes funds for new vehicles and equipment.
After the first year, the budget necessary to sustain those new officers will drop to $225,000.
Three of these officers would be dedicated to the Las Vegas Trail, Woodhaven and East Lancaster neighborhoods, where most of the code violations come from.
That’s something Charbonnet said will benefit their community, making sure tenants and Las Vegas Trail Rise can appropriately report any issues.
“We just want to make sure that everybody is being held accountable and complying,” she said.
Every nook and corner
When a code compliance officer visits an apartment complex, even the cleanest and most kept up places may receive a warning for a code violation.
“For the officer to go out and do an apartment inspection and not find a single violation would be surprising,” said Brandon Bennett, director of public health and code compliance with the city of Fort Worth. “There’s always something that somebody misses, and that doesn’t make them a bad complex.”
These violations range from minor things like a missing sign with code compliance’s telephone number to nuisance issues like exposed wires and broken windows.
Currently, one multi-family code compliance officer is responsible for inspecting around 14,000 units on a regular basis. With the addition of seven new multi-family inspection staffers, that number is expected to go down to 9,000.
For Oscar Reyes, code compliance superintendent, it’s hard to tell yet if those seven additional inspectors will be enough to tackle the ever-growing number of apartment units in Fort Worth.
Reyes, who has only been in this position for a year, said he would need to see whether the additional seven officers would be enough to address the growing number of apartments that need inspections.
“Because the apartment complexes, they haven’t stopped growing,” he said. “But hopefully, by seeing how many more inspections we can conduct, then I’ll probably be able to give you a better answer.”
The majority of the inspections are initiated based on tenant complaints. Some days, 15 inspections come in per day in denser neighborhoods like Las Vegas Trail, East Lancaster or Woodhaven.
“We’re their voice. We’re their advocates. That’s the only way they’re going to get some kind of repairs,” Tristan said.
District 5 councilwoman Gyna Bivens’ concerns for apartment inspections increased after the February 2021 winter storm. During her visit to two apartment complexes following the storm, she saw that one of the locations suffered from a fire before being damaged by the storm. Repairs for the fire were never completed, she said.
Since, she said, she has been pushing for training for apartment managers and owners on how to comply with city code.
“It was just very, very unsettling for me,” she said. “And the more and more I looked into it, I realized that maybe the apartment managers aren’t being trained properly on what their interaction with the city should be. And maybe the city should be more aggressive in making sure we have meetings with the department and management community.”
Since the winter storm, Bivens has been getting more complaints from residents about mold, unsafe living conditions and overall neglect, she said.
Bivens also hopes the increased support for multifamily inspections will also encourage the community to report substandard living conditions to code compliance.
“Just because you live in an apartment complex doesn’t mean you can’t help and be a part of a crime watch team,” Bivens said. “We have to know that these people know that we mean business and we want all people treated equally when it comes to housing.”
Apartment owners and managers are required to participate in a multifamily crime program Bennett said. The city has in the past offered training on how to use proper leases and tenant rights as well.
While the city is working to find and rectify substandard housing, code compliance has not shut down any apartment complexes in at least 20 years.
Some apartments voluntarily close their buildings to make repairs, Bennett said. That’s when code compliance works with the Red Cross and the Apartment Association of Tarrant County to provide temporary housing.
“We always need staff. I am the junk drawer department for the city,” Bennett said. “If there’s a service or other department that doesn’t fit somewhere, it generally has been combined with code compliance.”
What happens if a code violation occurs?
Code compliance officers are sent to an apartment two ways: either during the biennial inspection or if a tenant submits a complaint.
If a violation is found, property managers and owners will have a certain number of days to comply and make the necessary repairs. On average, that is 30 days. Code compliance officers will follow up after that time.
If a property manager or owner does not comply, a criminal citation can be issued. Inspectors can also file a case with the Building Standards Commission to find a solution to address the code violations.
If that doesn’t work, the case will be sent to a district court.
Registration fee increase
To fund these seven new positions, the city is looking to increase the annual fee paid by multifamily complex owners and managers. City code requires multifamily developments to pay a registration fee. Multifamily complexes pay a $25 fee for the first unit and then $10 per additional unit. That fee would increase to $13.
“It’s still relatively affordable,” Bennett said.
Registration fees for apartments are not a new concept. This model of registration fees can be dated back to the 1980s in the city of Arlington, said Perry Pillow, interim CEO and director of government affairs for the Apartment Association of Tarrant County. Fort Worth implemented this model in the mid-1990s.
The vast majority of apartments in Tarrant County are safe, Pillow said. While the registration fee works, he said, the fees are still a form of taxing for the apartment managers and owners.
“It’s a tax. It’s cities trying to find revenue sources,” Pillow said.
He suggested that the funding should come from the general fund instead.
“We will never see this industry support substandard owners. We support the city’s ability to do that,” Pillow said. “There would be a cost to have code compliance come out and do those kinds of things. … You’re taking money that could be used for (repairs) and apply it to something else.”
Bennett said the increased fee allows the department not to compete with other city improvement packages, police and fire.
“Since this is a service to apartment complexes, we’re able to charge a fee to the complexes,” he said. “In this market, $13 a unit is still relatively affordable. When we were at $10 a unit, rents were $400 a month in some of these complexes. Those same rents now are $800 to $900 a unit and we’re just increasing the fee by $3.”
The request for additional code compliance staff has been submitted to council annual for several years, Reyes said. Whether the request gets approved depends on city council and available funding.
“Usually, we’d submit for more staff just because Fort Worth has been growing rapidly for forever now. We’re always requesting more assistance,” Reyes said.
Rosalind Ayers-Clark, an apartment manager for Woodhills Apartments in the Las Vegas Trail area, sees why more compliance officers would be needed. She hears stories when people come through the door.
“It’s pretty sad, you know, like, staying there for a month with no air conditioning in the summer and I go ‘What? That’s a code compliance issue right there,’” Ayers-Clark said.
Apartment conditions depend on management teams and owners to take care of them, Ayer-Clark said. The apartment owner at Woodhills gives their team funds to make repairs.
“I’m fortunate in that respect,” Ayers-Clark said. “A lot of these places, they aren’t doing that.”
Sandra Sadek is a Report for America corps member, covering growth for the Fort Worth Report. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @ssadek19.
Seth Bodine is a business and economic development reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @sbodine120.
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