By CHRIS AGEE
City Manager Lance Howerton Wednesday addressed dozens of local property owners to discuss a proposed minimum housing code for Mineral Wells residences.
Howerton said he first presented a copy of the 2006 International Property Maintenance Code – which would serve as the basis for the local code – to city council members in November. He explained Mineral Wells Area Chamber of Commerce staff recommended a public forum prior to next Tuesday's council meeting, which will include this issue as an agenda item.
"We don't even know if a majority of city council wants to take this on," he said, inviting those with an opinion on the matter to attend the upcoming meeting and voice their support or concerns.
To begin the forum, Howerton presented a slide show depicting a "representative sample" of dilapidated structures throughout the city. "Our housing stock is significantly older than you will find in many other communities," he said, citing a dearth of new development over recent decades and the excess housing that resulted after Fort Wolters closed as contributing factors.
He said the proliferation of such properties can have negative results beyond neighborhood blight. With a lower property tax base, Howerton explained, the city is forced to levy higher tax rates to make up the difference.
Residents are living in substandard conditions, he added, and the presence of such structures contributes to an overall negative community image.
Through implementation of a minimum housing code, Howerton said Mineral Wells will experience a beautified appearance, stabilized neighborhoods, and improved living conditions. Currently, he noted, the city can only address these issues through building codes for new construction and a dangerous buildings and structures code that applies to buildings that are often condemned and demolished at taxpayer expense.
"We're addressing new construction; we're addressing derelict structures," Howerton said. "We don't have anything in the middle."
He said Building Official Robert Turk and city staff looked at codes from other regional cities and recognized most enforcement is geared toward rental properties. The city does not want to target those in owner-occupied residences who cannot afford to make repairs, he explained.
"Our objective is not to run someone out of their home," he said.
Howerton presented his proposal to adopt the code with local amendments, including the establishment of a board of appeals. In implementing that code, Howerton recommended continued monitoring of deteriorated residences, the establishment of an occupancy certification process for one- and two-family rental properties, and a permitting process for multifamily rental properties, motels and hotels.
He also shared suggestions about the certification process, though he stated the entire issue is in the proposal stage and any details can be altered to better fit the community.
The code would only look at issues of habitability, including the inspection of walls, doors, windows and smoke detectors. The code will also ensure residences are free from insect or rodent infestations and all electrical, mechanical and plumbing systems are functional.
Howerton addressed one concern about franchised hotel chains being subjected to the code despite the fact they undergo corporate inspections on a regular basis.
He said the code could be amended to allow franchise properties to be exempted in certain cases.
"We do have other properties that are independently owned and operated," he added, noting some of those structures have been the subject of prior complaints.
Turk assured one attendee the city will not unfairly target rental property owners should tenants begin calling with frivolous complaints. He said staff will only act on basic safety and operation concerns.
"We just want to make sure things are working [and] the ceiling's not falling down," Howerton said.
He said the city can deal with any noncompliance through citations, fines and, in extreme cases, even jail time. He added his recommendation that the city's code make room for flexibility instead of creating a contingency for any possible situation.
City council will address this issue during its regular meeting Tuesday at 6:30 p.m.