WREG questions Code Enforcement about problems uncovered during recent sweeps

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- WREG is asking tough questions of another city department with a role in maintaining safe and clean housing.

Residents are supposed to call 311 if they need to file a complaint regarding their landlord.

However, with all of the problems recently uncovered at several subsidized, complexes, the News Channel 3 Investigators wondered if those complaints could have been falling on deaf ears?

The leaders in charge say major changes are underway that will provide better protection for residents and hold property owners accountable.

There have been code violations and crime at the Peppertree Apartments.

A recent sweep revealed a bed bug infestation at Serenity Towers.

Problems were so bad at the Warren and Tulane Apartments, along with Goodwill Village, the owner was forced to make massive repairs, and a HUD contract was yanked at two locations.

The News Channel 3 Investigators sat down with Public Works Director Robert Knecht and Interim Deputy Director Patrick Dandridge to get some answers.

WREG asked, "How does it get to the point where you cite 80 violations, or 100 plus in one sweep, why did it even get to the point where you had to do a sweep?"

Knecht responded, "There's multiple things that come to mind, obviously we do depend on citizens to notify us of an issue. If we go out to a location and just look at one property or one unit then we've only addressed that one specific issue."

Knecht also explained older properties typically bring the biggest challenges.

He and Dandridge reinforced the fact that the ordinance used to cite code violations is complaint driven.

WREG then asked, "Are you all suggesting that they didn't call or complain enough?"

Dandridge replied, "No, I'm suggesting, saying that if they called and complained we addressed it, in particular units."

However, the News Channel 3 Investigators wanted to know could that approach of focusing on one call, one complaint mean they were missing the bigger picture?

"But if you guys see holes, the wall, squirrels crawling through sewage?"

Knecht responded, "Let's say this though, given the size of a complex, it takes a lot of resources for us to do a sweep."

Both said the recent sweep at Serenity Towers took roughly six hours and nearly 40 inspectors.  They also said given the style and nature of sweeps, more violations are bound to be uncovered.

What about the next step?

When landlords don't correct violations, Code Enforcement can take that person to court.

The News Channel 3 Investigators reviewed records for landlords taken to Environmental Court over the past couple of years.

GMF topped the list with 15 visits, but WREG dug a bit deeper, and court administrators could only find two citations (for GMF or its property managers) that happened before last spring.

Dandridge said, "Sometimes you can correct (the violations) without taking to court."

Dandridge and Knecht told WREG a lot of this is about to change.

Public Works has already implemented new policies and procedures that take a much more aggressive approach in Code Enforcement.

Knecht explained, "Our goal is to do something in a more proactive nature, we've been reactive in nature."

For example, the department now has a "Zero Tolerance" policy for taking landlords to court.

It provides specific timelines for landlords to correct violations.

Dandridge said, "Rather than allow them to have a long period of time to come into compliance, we'll get them into court and the judge will put a little more heat on them to make sure it's in compliance. "

Dandridge also says they plan to push for a city ordinance that would include a property registry.

"Which requires all landlords to register their property, which means inspections before you rent, annually."

Dandridge said several other cities across the country have similar registries.

Knecht says all of this will take more time and resources, but it's part of a bigger picture for what he hopes they can accomplish.

"We understand citizens get so frustrated they don't want to call anymore, or they're afraid to call. But we are doing what we feel we can do and we are trying to make it a better process and trying to make our Code Enforcement stronger."

Knecht also said they're in the process of providing additional training for inspectors. They'd eventually like to see their team more versatile, which would include specialty training like electrical and HVAC.

He also said Code is in the process of taking over some duties that would have been handled by Memphis Fire and Neglect, which could have led to overlap.

In the future, we might also hear talk of consolidation or streamlining of duties between Memphis Residential Code and County Construction Code.

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