Code Enforcement

Posted on Categories Neighborhoods, Policy, Public Safety

I know this is a dull subject. But it concerns everything from crime, to property values to the quality of life you can expect as a resident. Des Moines used to have a dedicated Code Enforcement Officer who’s job was to check that all properties were up to code. So, theoretically, if a property was obviously not being take care of, she could ticket them. Unfortunately, Des Moines has some of the weakest code in the entire state as far as upkeep goes. You can literally leave junk on your lawn for months at a time without incurring any penalties. So the Code Enforcement Officer, and police and fire department were often unable to take action when they saw properties in a sorry state. The rule was (and is) that they have to wait until an actual crime is committed in order to deal with obviously bad apples. It is for this reason that I got fed up enough to run for office. The good news is that we can easily fix this problem.

Now why would Des Moines have such weak code enforcement? Two reasons: one is that apartment building and other commercial owners tend to hate code enforcement. They complain that it adds to their costs and is unnecessary because ‘the market will take care of it’. In other words, people won’t rent if they don’t take care of their properties. That’s simply ridiculous.

The other reason is more philosophical. The city council has traditionally had the attitude “a man’s home is his castle.” Obviously, I have a slightly different take on this. Yes, you have your right to do as you please. But you also have a responsibility, as a property owner, to your neighbours to keep your place looking decent and to not infringe on their rights. It’s called courtesy. You can’t leave junk on your front lawn or fail to mow for weeks at a time or let your house fall into total disrepair. It damages the community, is unsafe.

Several years ago the city ended the Code Enforcement Officer position. It also rescinded a number of ordinances that hold rental property owners to a special standard of property upkeep (again, based on complaints from commercial property lobbying). What that means is that when my neighbors and I would complain to the city, we had no way of locating the absentee landlords or hold them accountable for the damage their renters were doing to our street!

We should reinstate the Code Enforcement Officer position. We should also update the city code to make our city’s ordinances on property upkeep in-line with those of other cities. These simple, no-drama changes to our city would save a tremendous amount on policing resources, make the city far more pleasant to live in and make the city far more attractive to prospective home buyers.


Posted on Categories Policy, Public Safety

If I know my Des Moines voters, you probably clicked here first. 😉

I don’t have all the answers right now. Nobody does. But I do think I’m asking all the right questions and I’m going to give you what I’ve learned. You may not like it. 😀

I’ve been where many of you are. A few years ago, two of my neighbor’s houses were sold and turned into rentals. And for the next five years my street endured a string of terrible tenants–criminals, couples with chronic family abuse, and meth addicts. Almost every week was an adventure in bad behavior. Usually, the cops could only shrug–not because they didn’t care but because there was little they could do. Worst of all, the landlords were completely unreachable. And as terrible as the problems were, they were either not ‘criminal’ or they were criminal, but only petty misdemeanors, so the person would be back on our street in just a few days.

Things finally resolved themselves with the one house being burned down by a tenant and the other when the tenant was evicted after doing $26,000 damage to the owner’s property. Two of my neighbors, who are great friends of mine, moved out. And my house still has a couple of bullet holes in one window as a reminder. So I get it. In fact the reason I am running now if because I was so appalled at how the city handled these problems. There are a lot of things that happen in our neighborhoods for which we currently don’t have good solutions.

My point is this: By far the largest chunk of crime that residents complain about is caused by people with drug addiction and/or mental health issues. And, let’s just get this out of the way now: we cannot arrest our way out of these problems. Or rather, we can, it’s just that we can’t simply “lock ’em up and throw away the key” or just drive them to the city limits and dump them somewheres else. Not possible. There’s this pesky thing called ‘the constitution’. And yes, I know that’s a tough pill to swallow.

New Facilities

First off, we need a whole new type of facility to take care of people with mental health or drug problems. When people are arrested for most misdemeanors (which again are the biggest chunk of crime in the area) they are booked into the SCORE facility. And that place becomes their detox or mental health care facility; which is ridiculous. On any given day between fifty to eighty percent of inmates at SCORE are either mentally ill or have a substance abuse problem. It is those problems that drive the criminal behavior. And jail is not a place to correct either of these problems. So the people are then released back into the community without the help they need and then they are likely to re-offend. So what we need is a different kind of institution which is designed to not only keep these people off the street, but also to give them the proper help they need so they stop re-offending.

The kind of institution I’m talking about requires State funding. So the city needs to start lobbying hard, both regionally and in Olympia for that to happen. Right now.

Code Enforcement

I know this is a dull subject. Des Moines used to have a dedicated Code Enforcement Officer who’s job was to check that all properties were up to code. So, theoretically, if a property was obviously not being take care of, she could ticket them. Unfortunately, Des Moines has some of the weakest code in the entire state as far as property upkeep goes. You can literally leave junk on your lawn for months at a time without incurring any penalties. I decided to run for office in order to fix this problem. If Des Moines had had these kinds of ordinances back when I was having my problems, the city would’ve cited the owner and the tenants would’ve been evicted. Problem solved.

Community Engagement

If you’re on Facebook, you’ll see several community groups which are sharing info on problems on their street and in their neighborhoods. And often, the city and the police are right there as well, taking information and trying to be responsive. This is something that the city should do a lot more to encourage.

What we often find out is that people on the same street are having similar problems, but they don’t realize that it’s a trend because, frankly, a lot of us aren’t as in touch with our neighbors as we should be. But almost all of us now are on the Internet, getting our news and information from computers and phones. The city can start engaging more directly with residents, encouraging them to post problems on social media and to the council and police. This creates a ‘virtuous circle’. The more we can get residents to engage with the city, the better the city can determine where problem hot spots are. And at the same time, residents can realize that they aren’t alone, that people on their street are there for them.

I’ve seen first hand how well this can help with exactly the kinds of problems I was experiencing. Someone reports a problem on social media and immediately other people chime in, “I have that problem too!”. And once that happens? Believe me, the police take note and problems get solved. What we need to do is get everyone in Des Moines involved.

More Bodies

OK, this is the part you want to hear. I do support increasing staff; not so much to increase ‘boots on the ground’, but simply to give officers a break. They currently run twelve hour shifts and often do overtime. No department can sustain effectiveness and morale under those conditions. This is actually one area where I am in agreement with the current government. We need to gradually increase the number of officers to where they can run full shifts and have at least a few extra officers to handle unexpected emergencies. That has to be done within the limits of a tight budget; it won’t happen overnight.