23.91 Citation– Hearings– Penalties: Clean up your act!

We most often think getting a ticket when we’re driving. Speeding, making a bad turn, or having a busted tail light can cost money in the form of fines and time if a person feels the ticket isn’t justified. This final chapter of the code is really part of the enforcement of the code, usually called compliance. I touched on it already, talking about how code compliance has affected the arts. This chapter outlines what happens when a property owner violates aspects of the code, falling out of compliance.

The folks in Roosevelt know all about code compliance and enforcement. So do people in Georgetown and South Park, and just about every other neighborhood. This chapter is about that one stubborn property owner that won’t clean up their yard or parks lots of junk cars on the property. At first, you want to ignore it. Maybe it’ll go away. But it gets worse and worse. And soon, it becomes clear, that the property owner isn’t just being messy, he’s actually somehow benefitting from the mess.

Here’s the list of things that a property owner can be cited for:

  • Substandard rental housing conditions
  • Outdoor storage of junk (inoperable cars, debris)
  • Zoning: Use not authorized
  • Illegal unit
  • Unlawful home occupation
  • Parking in required yard
  • Vacant building
  • Vacant building open to entry
  • Tenant-occupied damaged/dangerous buildings
  • Just Cause Eviction or Tenant Relocation
  • Vegetation from private property/planting strip overhanging or encroaching on street, alley, or sidewalk
  • Vegetation obscuring traffic sign/intersection or forcing pedestrians off the sidewalk into street
  • Construction without permits
  • Construction or mechanical equipment noise
  • Clearing or grading without permits
  • Tree cutting on a vacant lot
  • Tree cutting in an Environmentally Critical Area
  • Landslide
But the deal is that, unlike local traffic cops, the folks at the Department of Planning and Development don’t drive around looking for violations. Enforcement is complaint based. Maybe your neighbor won’t trim their hedge or maybe they’re taking a chain saw to an ancient tree. Perhaps you notice a lot of construction going on for a new DADU, but you don’t see any permits posted. Another frequent problem is lots of inoperable cars parked on a neighboring property. All of these require that neighbors file a complaint.

My experience is that these issues fall into three categories: neighborhood feuds, mental health issues, or deliberate and willful violations for profit. Roosevelt neighbors would likely argue that the Sisley properties fall into all three categories. But let me expand a bit.

The feuds tend to be differences in what people consider to be a clean or messy yard. Often these cases are issues of lifestyle preference or even economics. Things can get run down, but it might not fall quite into the category of a violation. People can feel insulted or slighted. Complaining parties can feel threatened or ignored and then things get ugly. Complaints are filed and all manner of invective can be hurled around. But really, the issue isn’t any of the things above, just basic human nature.

The issues related to mental or physical health often arise when a person is old or struggling with multiple health issues. Hoarders often fall into this category. There’s just too many risk factors and the person can’t maintain their home or their property in a way that keeps it in basic compliance. Trees can get overgrown, the structure can start to decay, and junk builds up. Soon, the neighborhood has a serious health and safety issue. These problems usually take intervention from more than just DPD and they can take years to clean up.

Lastly are the folks that decide they are going to run an auto repair and junk dealership out of their single family home. Or a family decides they really want a better view of the sound so they chop down a bunch of trees on their property or on Right of Way. Maybe a person is trying to turn that garage in the back yard into a DADU without getting a permit. All of these fall into the willful gaming of the system for personal benefit. These also can be a big hassle because sometimes property owners will comply just enough not to get a fine or maybe they figure fines are just the cost of doing business.

This last category, spurred the City Council to pass some amendments to the code to turn up the heat on these owners. Now, instead of just civil fines, the violations can be criminal violations.

The changes are directed at repeat offenders who negatively impact their neighborhoods and their tenants with substandard housing; zoning violations, such as auto repair and outdoor junk storage in single family neighborhoods; and chronic vegetation violations that create hazards for pedestrians and drivers, such as blocking views at intersections.

The Clean Up Your Act page goes into more detail about this on the DPD website. But so much of this comes down to resources. It doesn’t take many of these violators in combination with a few dozen of the other categories to stretch enforcement resources thin and then to the breaking point. So it ends up falling on neighbors to be persistent, and that can keep things uncomfortable for years.

Code enforcement on this level runs into some serious philosophical and legal issues that are uniquely American. “A man’s home is his castle!” is an oft repeated bromide in our culture. Code violations of this nature challenge our concepts of privacy and property. When someone takes advantage of those big allowances it makes people really angry, and it can sap a lot of resources trying to resolve the problem. But what’s amazing, as a teacher of mine once put it, “is not that this happens, but that it doesn’t happen more often. Lest you think these things only happen in single family neighborhoods here’s a note that was posted not long ago in a condo building I know.

Something must have set this off. Dogs aren’t covered by this chapter of code, but my point is that whenever you get people living close together it becomes a test of people’s patience. Even in a private setting, governed only by self imposed and private rules, conflicts between people and their expectations of each other are inevitable. It’s why I wrote in something I called the Urbanist Creed:

Urbanists are communitarian, holding that close proximity to one another boosts our best human characteristics: creativity, compassion, and conservation. We come from all across the economic spectrum ranging from homeless advocates to urban planners. But we all want to make our cities better and have idealism about where we live.

This view also fits my theology. The baptismal promise in the Episcopal church includes the following exchange and the end of the baptismal vows:

Celebrant Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
People I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
People I will, with God’s help

I fail to do this all the time. But it’s hard to pull this off, no matter how hard you try, via the internet or living in a compound in a rural setting. Cities promote conflicts between people and conflict presents us with an opportunity to be tolerant, to embrace differences, and to love one another. As much as we fight about overgrown vegetation, barking dogs, zoning, light rail, heightbulkenscale, or noise from the street, this conflict is an essential to human evolution. Isolation does not breed human progress.

This way of viewing how people evolve over time is not without controversy, nor is the first time anyone has ever thought of it. The via-negativa, the idea that to know God is to know what God is not, can give way to Nicolas of Cusa’s God, a God that is the “coincidence of opposites,” and then to Hegel’s dialectic of self-consciousness and identity through conflict of opposites. But the idea that we gain something from other people — learning from them what we don’t want to be, realizing from them what we share in common with others, or changing through conflict with them — is a powerful and ancient one.

Cities help us achieve sustainability for sure by reducing our per capita carbon emissions, using energy more efficiently, creating less impact on water, and concentrating growth in a way that preserves habitat, open space, and farm land. But living more closely together also forces us to be uncomfortable, and regardless of your theology — or if you even care about theology or epistemology — people get better the more they can learn from one another. In cities we find out what we don’t like, we learn what we should be more tolerant of, and, through conflict, we learn we can’t always be right and we improve our knowledge.

I know that’s a lot to try to get out of the citation section of the code, but, hey, as I’ve said before, it’s my blog!

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