How I got so interested in Code Enforcement

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In 2010 I moved away for a year and rented out my house here. Now back then, in order to rent out yer house, the City required aspiring landlords to do a couple of things: first you paid a $40(?) fee and second you became part of a database with your current address and phone number so that your neighbors could track you down if your renters were misbehaving and finally you had to take a class run by Community Service Officer Tonya (which was great by the way.) The class taught all kinds of neat-o stuff like how not to discriminate, your relationship with renters, etc. Sweet.

In 2011, I moved back and shortly thereafter I found that several of my neighbors had flipped their houses (as was so popular back then.) And the new owners were using their homes as rental properties. Unfortunately, the renters who had moved into these houses just suuuuucked. I mean suuuuucked. So I went to the City, because I knew from my ‘landlord class’ that we had a Code Enforcement Officer. And she told me that since my time as a landlord the City had rescinded the above landlord code. No fee, no database, no school. Which meant no accountability.

What I learned first hand is that when landlords cannot be easily held accountable for their renters, chaos tends to ensue. The City’s Code at the time made it almost impossible for people like me to locate the landlords of these bad renters (because, let’s be honest: a lot of these landlords did not particularly want to be found.)

And I did call the City. And SKFR. Many times. They were on a first-name basis with all the ne’er do-wells. They were sympathetic to me, but told me plainly that there was nothing they could do ‘until a crime is committed.’ The City Code was not designed to deal pro-actively with these kinds of situations.

So after many months of frustration I walked up the hill to City Hall on a Thursday night at 7pm and made my first public comment. And the Council just stared at me. (Just like they stare at you.) Which totally pissed me off. So I kept coming back. And kept getting stared at. But in the meantime, I found that the City had been threatened with a lawsuit from the Rental Housing Association–a group I had joined in order to be a ‘good landlord’. They objected to any form of ‘regulation’ on landlords and rather than litigate the City caved. I won’t go into more detail than that, but the whole thing seemed started to sour me on the Des Moines government. My issue seemed like exactly the sort of basic ‘blocking and tackling’ that City government should handle: keeping your street safe, clean and quiet.

Plus, since we were in the dark times of Des Moines financial problems, the Code Enforcement program was gutted–which I thought was just a terrible policy choice. It sent a very clear message about values.

The net effect of this on me personally and my street was this: Three of my long-time neighbors moved away–specifically because of these jerk renters. One of the rental homes was burned down to the studs by the renter. And another home was completely trashed by a meth-head who would store 10-20 thousand pounds of stolen wire (stealing copper was his day job) in the back yard. All it to0k was two crappy renters (or should I say, crappy landlords) to devastate my street. A street with half a dozen school-age kids.

To his credit, a few years later, at the end of his mayoralty, I got a nice letter from  Dave Kaplan, informing me that the City had taken my complaints to heart and was revamping its Code Enforcement program. As you can imagine, I was initially very skeptical.

I’ve got a nose for it…

Fast forward to 2020. I am pleased to report that the situation is much better.

Because of my bad experience, I had developed something of a ‘bad property radar’. I can spot troubled properties from far away. And during my campaign, I walked every single block of Des Moines. And I heard hundreds of complaints about ‘that one house’ that makes the entire block nervous. And. I. get. it.

The City now has a full-time Code Enforcement officer–who literally pays for himself and re-jiggered the Code to require landlords to have a business license–which provides a measure of that lost accountability. It’s still not where I’d like it to be, but it’s progress and I will keep pushing for even more emphasis on Code Enforcement.

Animal Control Officer and Code Enforcement Update

The thing that is not on the presentation Officer Batterman gave was a very good comment from Chief Thomas: Code Enforcement pays. If done properly, it should basically pay for itself. You can see that it’s at least $100k a year in City revenue when done well. That’s not a bad thing like some speed trap. It’s a good way to measure effectiveness simply because there’s a lot of work left to do in Des Moines.

Now, am I 100% happy? Of course not. 😀 But I gotta be fair. It’s much better than it was. And I want you to know that, on a street by street level this is my number one issue. I moved here because Des Moines had a great reputation for its neighborhoods. Gardens were well tended. People understood that the way their house and street looked mattered.

If you have a Code Enforcement issue, please go to the City Code Enforcement Complaint page or call Officer Kory Batterman directly at (206) 870-7617.