City officials have grappled with the thorny issue of substandard housing for months if not years and on Tuesday night, they grabbed hold of it again.
The city council discussed proposed ordinances to update existing housing standards and be easier to enforce. Building Inspector Dave Hahn and Zoning Administrator Judy Clark said they and a small group went through International housing standards line by line, making revisions to fit North Platte.
The result is 12 pages of city ordinances — pared down from 33 pages in the international code — plus several pages of standard operating procedures.
Hahn said regulations about such things as paint and caulk were removed.
“That’s not something we want to regulate,” he said.
On the other hand, the proposed ordinances give inspectors more authority over junk cars, falling fences and excessive weeds.
Hahn said considerable time was also spent clarifying when inspectors have the right to enter a residence, something that is provided in emergencies. He also said inspecting a water heater does not give an inspector the right to look at the entire house.
The topic of substandard housing has been a source of controversy for years. It erupted in October when attorney Jim Paloucek, acting on behalf of several people who think the city should do a better job of enforcing housing standards, demanded copies of seven years of city records pertaining to inspections, violations, licenses, forced maintenance and demolitions under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, which requires government officials to provide public records upon demand.
At a subsequent press conference, Mayor Dwight Livingston said the city attorney at the time, Doug Stack, was told to check ways to improve city ordinances and fortify their legal clout if property owners appeal a citation in court.
Livingston told the Bulletin that 600 homes in the city do not have electricity and more needs to be done about those kinds of situations. On the other hand, he said the city needs to be careful about telling a property owner what they can and cannot do with their own property.
Stack retired three months later, and the task of updating the ordinances fell to the city’s contracted attorney, Terry Waite.
Waite told the council that the new ordinances are more definitive and easier to enforce.
City Councilman Ed Rieker raised several concerns, asking about limits on a housing inspector’s authority, prohibitive costs of construction upgrades and the heavy hand of government.
Councilman Andrew Lee voiced some of the same concerns. He asked Hahn and Clark if the language is understandable to landlords, so they can “self-test.”
“Yes, definitely,” Clark said. “Most of it is very readable.”
Lee also asked if more city staff would be needed for enforcement, above and beyond two building inspectors and two code enforcers who are currently employed.
“It depends,” Clark said. “If you expect us to have a department that focuses on housing every day, we’ll need more staff.”
Rieker, who works for an architect, said the corresponding International Energy Code that the state has adopted and North Platte is considering looks like it will greatly increase the cost of steel building construction, if buildings can’t be cooled to 72 degrees in the summer and warmed to 74 degrees in the winter. It will certainly mean the end of screw-down roofs, he said.
He said if excessive regulations drive up rents, people who can’t afford to pay $750-800 a month won’t have a place to live.
“We need to have lower-cost housing units,” he said.
Former City Councilwoman Judy Peterson, a member of the committee that combed the regulations, said “you’d be surprised” at the number of people who are living in really bad conditions and paying $750-800 a month in rent.
Clark said the committee studied similar regulations in Kearney and Hastings. She said Kearney adopted the international standards without modification, which is causing an uproar there.
Councilman Jim Nisley told Rieker to read the entire proposal. He’d found nothing odious.
“It sets things out that makes sense,” he said. “If you’re looking for over-reaching government, this isn’t it.”
Councilman Ty Lucas asked how the code would regulate such things as stairwells and outdoor firepits. Hahn replied that the guideline would be stairwells should be as solid as when they were built and a screen should be placed over firepits so embers don’t float around the neighborhood. He said safety is the ultimate goal.
Lucas also asked what would trigger an inspection. Clark and Hahn said the most common trigger is a phone call from a renter, an owner, the department of health and human services, or a neighbor.
The council took no action. Next, the city planning commission will review the proposal, and then it will come back before the council. City Planning Commission meetings are held the fourth Tuesday of the month (July 28) at 5:30 p.m. in the City Council Chambers.