Building Department Found 18,600 Code Violations Last year; 670 Tickets Issued

Voices and eyebrows are raised in a 33-minute discussion of Royal Oak's property maintenance rules.

One of the more heated dialogs at the strategic planning session on Saturday was a discussion of property maintenance.

The Royal Oak City Commission voted in November to direct staff to come up with solutions for better ways to deal with the city's Property Maintenance Code.

Mayor Jim Ellison started the discussion by reiterating that he would like the city to come up with a different kind of plan for do-it-yourself projects where homeowners would work out a written agreement or contract with the Building Department that outlines deadlines.

"Now Jason (Craig, chief building official) tells me he already does that," Ellison said.

Ellison pointed to the case of a community blogger who wrote: "Restoring a Royal Oak Bungalow - a Criminal Offense."

"In this particular case, the building department worked on an agreement that the homeowner agreed with and their answer was to go to the newspaper," Ellison said. "It made the building department look bad even though they had bent over backwards to try to accommodate the work."

[Read: City Manager Responds to Code Violation Nightmare]

How the process works

"I want to start by making sure everyone understands what the code enforcement process is," said Craig. "We have a book of ordinances that we follow, so right off the bat we ask, 'Is it a violation?' We might get a complaint. We might go out and see it. How ever we get to that violation, we attempt to notify the owner (with a letter) that there is a violation on the property...We give them a certain amount of time to fix it or respond."

The amount of time given to resolve a violation depends on on various factors. A ticket is the last case scenario, Craig said.

"I'll give you an example. If we go out and a person has a broken screen, how long does it take to fix that violation?" Craig said. "There are two ways to fix it. One is to get new screens or patch what you have, and that can take you a couple of weeks. Another way to fix the violation is just to remove the screen. It takes about 10 minutes."

"It's not a requirement that you have screens," said City Manager Don Johnson.

"Are people told these options?" asked Mayor Pro-Tem Dave Poulton.

"No," Craig said.

"Well why don't you just tell them?" Poulton said.

"We tell them when they call us and and say, 'What do you mean? What's going on with my screen?'" Craig said. "Our deadlines are basically set up so that they contact us. So they get a hold of us and let us know that they understand the problem and they are working on fixing it." 

Johnson explained that violation letters sent by the department tend to be somewhat legalize.

18,600 violations in the city last year

"In my interactions with people across the city in the last few months, they have told me they are given this deadline and the next thing is there's this building person saying, 'It's not done. Here's a ticket," said Poulton.

Craig said his department found approximately 18,600 violations in the city last year.

"Three (code enforcement officers) found 18,600 violations?" said Poulton. He later called the number "staggering."

"Yes, and 670 tickets were written from it," Craig said. "Those are the people that didn't respond."

Of the 670 tickets, probably half of them were to people who received multiple tickets, Craig said.

Many of the tickets are contested but Craig estimated his department's success rate in court is 98 percent.

The ticket that is issued for a code enforcement violation is either a misdemeanor or a civil infraction, said City attorney Dave Gillam.

"If it's a civil infraction, it's basically the same as if you get a speeding ticket, you have the right to contest it," said Gillam. With a misdemeanor, Gillam said his office gets involved. 

"I don't hear from...either of the judges that the tickets these guys are writing are bad tickets," Gillam said. "There are tickets that we do dismiss over there but it's not a reflection on the merits of the tickets."

Gillam said his goal is compliance.

"These guys are working with people as much as they can. They wrote up 18,600 violations and they ended up giving 670 tickets on 300 some properties, (which is 3.7 percent)," the mayor said. "So this discussion that our code enforcement people are going out there and harassing people is (unfortunate)...If we don't want all these violations, then we need to change the code."

"I think the thing that we are not seeing is our code enforcement has prevented our city from having blight," said Commissioner Peggy Goodwin.

The first point of a city declining is inadequate code enforcement, she said.

"I don't think we are doing anything wrong in code enforcement. Can people be a little more customer friendly and compassionate? Everyday of the week," Goodwin said.

In November, Ellison asked that Code Enforcement identify the issues that they have the most problems with and see if there is any way to "massage some of those codes." 

The quandary, Ellison said, is that some of the codes are one-size-fits-all.

No "problem" issues or codes were identified in the 33-minute conversation.


Matt Turner January 21, 2014 at 02:08 PM
"The first point of a city declining is inadequate code enforcement, she said. " this statement couldn't ring more true. Glad to see they are doing their job.
Cbgb January 21, 2014 at 02:30 PM
Cmr. Poulton is absolutely right: those numbers ARE staggering, especially when you consider the many examples of commercial blight that remain unchecked (examples: the nearly empty CVS strip mall at 12 & Rochester, the abandoned, paint-peeling party store across from Wagner Park, the rotting gas station at 13 & Main, the dilapidated mobile phone store/party store/hair salon at 14 & Crooks next to 7-11 (with an awning that tips more with each storm...). Much like the balcony debacle downtown, will getting rid of this blight require protracted litigation? These are the areas that need the attention of our enforcement officers. Please do something.
niteman January 21, 2014 at 02:38 PM
When I originally read the article on the couple who were being barraged with citations while trying to fix up their bungalow to their standards, it really hit home as I could relate to their frustrations. So now we have these ticket happy code enforcement officers who are supposedly trying to avoid potential blight but in reality seems more like a plan to increase the city's coffers at same time.... If you choose to renovate and improve your property, the city increases your taxes for helping to increase the aesthetics and value of your neighborhood. What kind of incentive is that? If anything, you'd think that those who "choose to improve" should be rewarded or incentivized with a tax abatement for at least a period of a few years before being hit over the head with the city doubling or tripling your property taxes. Either something like that or your home is reassessed at the time of sale to the next buyer. Personally, I started an addition on my home at what turned out to be (and unbeknownst to me as) the start of the Great Recession. Before our economic downturn - before I started the project, I took the plans down to the city to see if I could afford the taxes for doing so. The city came up with an estimate that wasn't too out of hand or unaffordable. However, after the project was completed and still in the midst of recession and plunging home values, we were hit with a tax bill that was way more than the pre-build estimate despite the free-fall in home values. Go figure! In protest, I had to ask the city if they were aware that an unprecedented recession was in full swing. It seemed as though the city was simply trying to get the last "gouge" in as far as taxes go. We were given a slight break at the city tax tribunal but still the final amount was higher than originally estimated. Did we feel taken advantage of? Yes. Did it change our view of the city of Royal Oak? Definitely. Especially since we will likely have to sell our house in our golden years (not too far away) because we will not be able to afford the taxes on limited retirement incomes. Again I ask: Shouldn't sinking your own money into beautifying your home and neighborhood be rewarded instead of penalized? Some could say the increased value upon the sale should be enough incentive but what if you never wanted to move? Makes one think that what Michigan needs is another Headlee-type amendment that helps keep this runaway taxation in check because many of us are going to find ourselves in this situation sooner or later.
JH January 21, 2014 at 07:46 PM
I was one of the unfortunate recipients of one of the 18,600 code violations last year. I agree with the "staggering" assessment of that number accruing from 3 individuals. When I called the city I was told there was no complaint regarding my transgression. It was discovered while driving around in early spring when they are "less busy". I don't understand how they could be less busy when a simple calculation determines they are writing an average of approximately 120 violations per week per enforcement officer. That number gives the impression every possible infraction is being cited without employing common sense. If the purpose of the codes is to avoid a blight in the neighborhoods and the property appears to be overall well maintained, is it really necessary to write a citation with a deadline for a torn screen? Is it possible/probable the infraction, as in my case, is on the homeowner's "to do" list? Is it insulting to receive a citation in these circumstances? YES! Further, the reference to the number of tickets being issued or the number of court cases should not be a validation of the process. 18,600 citations = harassment.
KJ January 21, 2014 at 09:47 PM
JH read it again. 670 tickets were written not 18600
JH January 21, 2014 at 09:54 PM
kj ..sorry 18,600 "violations"= harassment.
Mark Itall January 22, 2014 at 01:08 AM
Ask Detroit about the consequences of letting Code Enforcement slide. Not to mention Detroit's department was on the take for decades.
Ron Arnold January 22, 2014 at 07:22 AM
All these citations and tickets and yet my back neighbor's garage is still collapsing. Take a peek in the backyards too!
Philip January 22, 2014 at 10:29 AM
People who know enough to ask the question: "before I started the project, I took the plans down to the city to see if I could afford the taxes for doing so." and then complaining they were blindsided is just unreasonable. I assume they presented the facts to the tribunal, then only got some of the relief they sought. So now they are preying on the sympathies of the "citizen jury" to change the outcome. It isn't altogether reprehensible, but there comes a time to quit complaining. if the city always looks like it is in repair, the way we all feel about living here will diminish, leading to more blight. It may be hard to follow a schedule to complete maintenance, but it is necessary to avoid the appearance of slovenliness. If you start a repair job, it is in all our interests that you finish it on a timely basis.
Bill January 22, 2014 at 10:36 AM
There’s no doubt that code enforcement is necessary to assure a city maintains a certain level of integrity. Detroit is a good example of code enforcement going haywire. But, their situation began with a corrupt code enforcement - which became very corrupt. There does seem to be a disparity between how builders and commercial properties are treated verses homeowners. Is it because the professionals have the cash and legal expertise to sidestep code enforcement, or is it because code enforcement knows these guys? Familiarity tends to create a more relaxed relationship. That relaxed relationship translates into more flexible application of the code. But there should be away to work with residents doing their own work, verses working with hired professionals. Residents are more likely to be affected by time, weather, economic down turn, etc. A professional most likely has the resources to overcome obstacles that are bound to come up. The article that originated this discussion, referenced a couple doing very detailed, tedious, restorative work themselves. Perhaps a different classification of permit could be developed to reflect this type of restorative work, that would provide for more discretion in applying the code and/or timelines, while still providing the city the muscle to keep the process moving forward. Perhaps the granting of such a permit would require the homeowner review the project in detail with a professional familiar with restorative work, who could help them understand the ramifications of such a project. I think the homeowner should be willing to provide verification of their financial ability to complete such a project, and maybe even to put up a bond. The professional could help the homeowner establish a plan of action that would include realistic timelines as well as a logical approach to the work desired to minimize the negative impact the work in progress would have on the immediate neighborhood. As anybody who has ever done work on an older home knows, you have to expect the unexpected, and be prepared for the additional work, cost and time. By requiring the homeowner run their restorative plans by a professional, they might have a better understanding of what they’re getting themselves into, before they’re overwhelmed and receiving code enforcement citations. The City can help homeowners succeed, by providing a means of imparting knowledge. They can do this by requiring a special permit, with stipulations. This allows the City to collect their fees, helps the homeowner, and insures code is enforced.
The Duke of Royal Oak January 22, 2014 at 11:30 AM
A property cannot be in endless renovation. If you cannot do the work yourself in a timely manner then higher a professional. Neighbors should not have to look at an endless construction project.
John Maurice January 22, 2014 at 12:32 PM
I don't really understand what was "heated" about any of the dialog in this article.
Pbrzez January 22, 2014 at 03:40 PM
I agree with all of the above. I live next to a hoarder. Please don't get me started. Some people live in a world wind of junk and love it. Some of the businesses and renter homes on 11 mile road are in deplorable condition. Can't the city make the gas stations pull their weeds, take care of the facade? It takes such little effort to clean up your business. Would you want that business or renters home in your neighborhood? Thanks for letting me rant.
niteman January 22, 2014 at 04:41 PM
Philip - Apparently you didn't read the post. The city gave us an estimate. It was double of what our yearly property taxes were. The worst recession since the Great Depression hit and our home values plummeted. The city then reassessed our completed property at a much higher rate than they originally estimated. The point is/was: How could it be higher when home values plummeted? Even though we sunk 250k + into renovation, the home was underwater in value. If that's unreasonable...well, I guess we differ on that one. We eventually got a little relief but still higher than they estimated in the good old days when home values were way up. In essence, they jacked the assessment way up in order to settle (and guess who came out the winner? Not the taxpayer).
niteman January 22, 2014 at 04:49 PM
One last comment to Philip: What is this "citizen jury" that you refer to. You mean the readers of Patch? Too funny! As if different results could occur from talking to your neighbors. Don't we all wish! The intent of the post was to share what occurred in our little corner of the universe.
David Kies January 22, 2014 at 10:06 PM
How about doing something about the guy on N. Altadena with the POD and Port-a-John on his front lawn. Talk about an eyesore for the neighbors living on that street.
Chris January 22, 2014 at 10:51 PM
Duke, All properties are in a state of perpetual renovation. You just have to make sure that the mafia gets its cut.
Bob January 23, 2014 at 09:10 AM
I agree with the perception that code enforcement on commercial properties is exceptionally lax.


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