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Subject:  Austin:  city officials cite off-code materials at apartments where walkway collapsed Auto forwarded by a Rule

 City officials cite off-code materials at apartments where walkway collapsed

By Eric Dexheimer and Ricardo Gándara
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Updated: 9:53 p.m. Saturday, May 26, 2012
Published: 8:06 p.m. Saturday, May 26, 2012

Inspections of the Wood Ridge Apartments, where a walkway collapse and unsafe second-floor walkways forced dozens of residents from their homes, show the structures were held up by materials that did not meet building codes and suffered from numerous other deficiencies including "improper design and construction," as well as termite and water damage, city officials told the American-Statesman.

The officials also said that walkways in the Burton Drive apartment complex appear to have been repaired or replaced without going through the required city permits process on "multiple occasions." Not filing for a permit means the completed work would not have been inspected by city code officers.

Melissa Martinez, spokeswoman for City of Austin Code Compliance, said she was unable to identify any party who had ordered or performed the nonpermitted work. The apartment complex, between East Riverside Drive and Oltorf Street, is managed by Asset Plus Cos., a Houston-based real estate property management company. It did not respond to requests for comment, but it issued a statement saying it was working hard to help residents from the four dozen units city inspectors ordered evacuated May 16 and 17 because of dangerous living conditions.

According to county records, Wood Ridge has been owned since late 2006 by a La Jolla, Calif., businessman named David Andrews, who declined to comment. Before then, city and state records indicate, the complex was owned by a limited partnership controlled by Manny Farahani and Peter Barlin, commercial real estate owners and managers with wide holdings in the Austin area. No one responded to three messages left with a receptionist at their Central Austin office.

Although not all repairs require a permit, any work that has a potential effect on "life safety" does, said Dan McNabb, city buildings inspection manager.

Permits for work on the balconies and walkways have been issued in the past, city records show. Since 1988, nearly 20 building permits were issued for repair or replacement work on balconies and walkways on one or more of the 15 Wood Ridge buildings. The most recent permit for balcony work was issued in 2000.

Working without a required permit is a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a $2,000-per-violation fine, Martinez said.

Housing advocates say the Wood Ridge incident highlights a problem that could grow as Austin prospers and inexpensive housing, especially in and around the city's center, becomes scarce. "This is where the majority of low-income people live in Austin - aging apartments, unsubsidized, with no one watching what is happening with them," said Elizabeth Mueller, a University of Texas School of Architecture professor who studies local affordable housing.

Regardless of who ultimately is assigned blame for ordering or allowing the substandard work, critics say the fact that the apartments were allowed to deteriorate to the point of collapse and closure point to glaring weaknesses in the way the city inspects and enforces its building codes in multifamily apartments. They include a reactive system in which inspectors only respond to complaint calls on the front end - and a weak citation enforcement system that threatens little if any penalty for bad landlords on the back.

"Citations are just telling the community: We did something," said Robert Doggett, an attorney for Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. "But nothing ever gets done."

Many of the deficiencies were outlined in a critical 2010 audit of the Code Compliance department's performance, including delays in solving complaints, which in some cases resulted in renters staying in substandard living conditions for months.

"For one case in our sample where dangerous conditions were identified by the inspector, the notice gave six months to comply, and compliance was not achieved until one month after the due date," the report found. In another case, in 2009, "at least two tenants went almost two months without hot water after the violation was documented."

The audit also compared Austin unfavorably with other cities that took a more aggressive stance in trying to find problems - in apartment complexes, especially - before they became dangerous. San Antonio, for example, dispatches teams of inspectors into individual neighborhoods to search out deteriorating properties, the report noted.

Actively searching for problem landlords is important not only for safety, advocates stressed, but also because poorer tenants with few affordable housing options often are reluctant to complain about bad living conditions for fear of being evicted. "It should never be complaint-driven," Doggett said. "The worst places are the ones where people won't complain."

City records show the Code Compliance department has investigated 39 complaints from Wood Ridge residents since January 2007, including bed bugs, rats and electrical problems. Since being ordered to leave the complex, some residents said they have endured long-standing problems there.

"It's not the outside of my building that's the issue; it's the inside," Krista Jennings said, adding that the floor in her $500-a-month apartment appeared to be caving in. A complaint filed with the city by a Wood Ridge resident a month before the walkway fell cited "holes in the wall from water leaking from upstairs apartment - no response for 4 months."

City Code Compliance officials have long complained of being understaffed. In a presentation to the City Council earlier this month, director Carl Smart said Austin inspectors carry an average of more than 500 cases each, or nearly double the caseload they would need to have in order to investigate every complaint quickly and thoroughly.

More staff would also allow the department to keep regular tabs on apartment buildings, Smart said in an interview. "We need a more proactive program for apartment complexes where they would register annually, pay a fee and go through regular inspections."

The more proactive approach would be patterned after similar programs in San Antonio and Fort Worth, where Smart was in charge of code compliance before coming to Austin less than a year ago. "This would allow for better preventative maintenance on part of the owners, and the city would be able to monitor the apartments more closely," he said.

Such a program is working in Fort Worth, said Brandon Bennett, director of code compliance, where eight code compliance officers work closely with 550 apartment complexes and properties with three units or more, to ensure owners have an ongoing maintenance program. Property owners pay an annual registration fee and undergo annual or biannual city inspections.

"It gets their attention because they know we'll be back to check on progress," Bennett said, "and if we get a complaint while we're monitoring them, they must pay a reinspection fee. It's a way for property owners to work toward being free of code violations.

"Regular maintenance avoids things like balconies collapsing," he said.