The Business of the City: Miscellaneous

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Code Enforcement & “Safe Homes” for All

(raw sewage being pumped into street by Connolly workers, 2009)


Code Enforcement—Split Shifts Can Be Effective

As I have been out canvassing the neighborhoods in the 2nd and 3rd Wards, residents have expressed great dismay at the lack of responsiveness of the incumbent to their issues, especially code enforcement, which many feel unfairly (and oddly) targets homeowners who keep up their properties while ignoring 18-inch high grass, broken windows, peeling paint, litter, and unattractive facades on other homes in their neighborhoods. In addition, the amount of illegal, unpermitted work being done on homes compromises safety as well as reduces revenues to the city.

One of the problems, as I have stated several times, has to do with how the Code Enforcement Officers are deployed. Code enforcement is not a Monday – Friday, 9-5 job. Most illegal and unpermitted work takes place after hours and on weekends, as many of you who have called and emailed me can attest.

I have proposed that the administration look to restore the split shifts so that there is a deployment of officers around on the weekend to catch the illegal work being done. We have codes on the books, but if individuals feel that they won’t be enforced, they will continue to perform illegal work with impunity.

In addition to the city not receiving the revenue from the permits, though, this is mainly an issue of safety. I know that I would not feel safe if my neighbors were to use unlicensed contractors to perform, for example, electrical upgrades to their properties. How about an addition on a house that looks structurally unsound? There is a reason that we have standards in place—they are for the safety and well-being of all—but if there is no one on patrol when this illegal work is being done, we are all compromised.

Safe Homes Initiative--for Our Safety

Last spring, when the Connolly Properties apartment scandal erupted, Councilman Mapp wrote a blog post on an ordinance that came before the governing body when he was council president in 2004. The ordinance is MC 2004-32, REGISTRATION AND INSPECTION OF RESIDENTIAL RENTAL PROPERTIES, Chapter 6, Article 7 of the City’s Building Code (Rev. 7/05). Late Mayor Al McWilliams called the ordinance the “Safe Homes Initiative,” and I remember clearly how this came about.

There had been a fire in Plainfield, I believe on East Sixth Street, and a couple of families were displaced. As the details emerged, it turned out that there had been an illegal basement apartment, faulty wiring, and other substandard conditions at the location. Al visited the location, and I remember him being a bit shaken by what he saw. Although there were no fatalities, he said that, given the conditions, it would only be a matter of time before a fatal conflagration occurred. He immediately set to work to develop a plan to ensure residents' safety--that is how the Safe Homes Initiative became a reality.

Adrian, as Council President, got the legislation passed through the council in his final year. It was a good ordinance, and one that put the safety of Plainfield residents before any other considerations. However, at the request of newly-installed Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, this ordinance was repealed by the 2006 City Council, which included Councilman Burney and Councilman Davis. No logical rationale was offered—Councilman Burney said that the ordinance was not working, and his colleague Councilman Davis made no public comment that I am aware of.

How was it that an ordinance that had barely had a chance to work was so quickly repealed as not working? I remember asking Ray Blanco (who was council president) why he and the others so blindly agreed to the rescission, and Ray smiled and said cryptically, "Politics. You'll see." I remember shaking my head after Ray said this, but since he passed away barely two months later, I never had the opportunity to lobby him for its reintroduction and passage.

Well, we have an opportunity now to get this ordinance back on the books for the betterment of Plainfield. I will do what is right, not what is politically expedient. Given the devastating consequences of the Connolly debacle, for which the tenants are still paying, wherein that landlord was given carte blanche by the administration and those councilors to turn his apartment buildings into slum properties, we can now see how the Safe Homes Initiative might have prevented the conditions—raw sewage being poured into the streets, cracked ceilings and roof leaks, no heat—from becoming so awful while the administration and council slept.

We have a moral responsibility to protect all of the people who live in Plainfield, and this ordinance, which is an important one, is critical to the continued safety of all of Plainfield’s residents. If I am elected to the city council, I will work with Councilman Mapp to encourage the other councilors to revisit this critical legislation and get it reinstated. Below, I have posted the most cogent portions of this ordinance, courtesy of Councilman Adrian Mapp, who had the entire ordinance posted on his blog and website—I have also included the link to the entire ordinance, again courtesy of Councilman Mapp:

“The purpose of the initiative was clearly stated:

‘...to ensure that residential rental units as that term is defined in this Article are identified, properly registered with the pertinent unit and building information, inspected, maintained and repaired, with legal occupancy and without overcrowding, in accordance with applicable State and local building, property and health codes, and in conformance with New Jersey statutes and law so as to protect the property as well as the health, safety and welfare of City residents. To this end, the Article shall be liberally construed to assure the provision of decent and safe units of dwelling spaces.’

The section on “Inspections,” Sec. 6:7-8, deals with the steps the City was required to take to ensure habitability and safety. These steps included ANNUAL inspection of all rental units, IN ADDITION to any other inspections required under State law or City ordinances.

The ordinance also called for severe penalties for violation of the law. Sec. 6:7-17 of the ordinance outlines the penalties for violations:

a) Any person who violates the registration requirements of this Article shall be subject to a fine of nor more than Five Hundred Dollars ($500.00) for each offense, recoverable by summary proceeding as set forth in N.J.S.A. 46:8-35.

b) Any person who violates any other provision of this Article shall, upon conviction in the Municipal Court of the City of Plainfield or such other court having a jurisdiction, be liable to a fine not to exceed Five Hundred Dollars ($500.00) or imprisonment for a term not exceeding ninety (90) days, or by a period of community service not exceeding ninety (90) days or a combination thereof each day that a violation occurs shall be deemed a separate and distinct violation subject to the penalty provisions of this Article.

c) Any person who is convicted of violating this Article within one (1) year of the date of a previous violation of the same Article and who was fined for the previous violations, shall be sentenced by a Court to an additional fine as a repeat offender. The additional fine imposed by the Court upon a person for a repeated offense shall not be less than the maximum or exceed the maximum fine fixed for a violation of the Article, but shall be calculated separately from the fine imposed for the violation of the Article.

The Safe Homes Initiative is posted on Adrian’s website: Adrian Mapp, 3rd Ward Councilman, City of Plainfield

Click on the Plainfield Municipal Code link on the left navigation bar to read the ordinance in its entirety.

All best,

Rebecca

Endorsed by Councilors 
Cory Storch (Ward 2) and Adrian Mapp (Ward 3)

Rebecca Williams, City Council Candidate
New Democrats for Plainfield

Dedicated-Determined-Decisive
 
DEMOCRAT

Column D
Vote Tuesday, June 8



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