A significant new law kicked into action Oct. 1 to take on an old problem, and there is a dilapidated eyesore of a broken-down house already in the law’s sights.
Amanda Grieder is coordinator of the city’s nuisance-property abatement program called SAFE-CR, and the two-story house at 617 17th St. SE is one that city inspectors some time ago slapped with a placard as unfit for habitation until and if the owner — retiree Allen Ulferts, 68, of Cedar Rapids — fixes it up.
Ulferts is among the first dozen property owners to land on SAFE-CR’s complaint list, a spot garnered after police were called to the house on Oct. 4 to evict someone for illegally living inside.
Specifically, Ulferts is in violation of the city’s nuisance properties ordinance for failure to secure his property. A second violation of a similar kind will force the city to tag the property as a “nuisance” — a new status that will prompt coordinator Grieder to attempt to help Ulferts remedy his house’s problems. The status also will require the city to bill him each time a police officer, building services inspector or other city employee is called to the property for a problem in the next year.
Ulferts said he bought the house several years ago for his disabled stepbrother. It’s his stepbrother who gets run out of the house by police — several times in two months — but he comes back.
“I told him I’d never throw him out of the house,” said Ulferts, adding that he doesn’t have the money to fix up the place.
His is a conundrum that SAFE-CR — Secure and Friendly Environments in Cedar Rapids — is designed to remedy, one way or another.
Greider said the Ulferts-owned house is unsanitary, infested with cockroaches and bedbugs, with broken-out windows and an unsafe front porch. She said the city has organizations that can help property owners without resources to fix up properties and bring them into compliance with the housing code.
“The city of Cedar Rapids wants people to live in a safe and sanitary environment,” she said.
At the same time, police Capt. Steve O’Konek, who helped design SAFE-CR, said the program’s imposition of fees on owners of nuisance properties is intended to get owners to act. He said police officers and other city employees shouldn’t have to repeatedly answer calls at the same properties for the same reasons.
“Here’s the real thing that people need to remember,” O’Konek said. “If I’m a property owner and I have to live next to that junk yard, that continued police call, that meth lab, it devalues my property. It devalues my quality of life.
“ … We’re not just trying to fee people to death. I really think we’re trying to improve the quality of life.”
Under the city’s nuisance properties law, the most serious activities, such as operating a meth lab, are enough to obtain the nuisance designation. It takes three police calls because of animal noise at a property for a similar result. Four of the first 12 calls logged by the program were related to animal noise.
Once a property is defined as a nuisance, the owner will be contacted by Grieder, asking the owner to develop a plan of remedy. The owner will not be assessed nuisance fees if there are no more calls for service in the next year. At the same time, though, other city departments, such as the Building Services Division, can continue with their own enforcement actions, such as placing a placard on a home that is uninhabitable and even referring houses to court for demolition.
Landlords who have been critical of the program have said they shouldn’t face new fees and shouldn’t be responsible for the bad behavior of their tenants. Landlords of Linn County succeeded in court in 2011 to defeat an earlier version of the city’s nuisance abatement effort.
Angie Charipar, assistant to the city manager, emphasized that SAFE-CR criteria apply to all property owners in the city, not just landlords. She said the program will not tell property owners how to remedy a nuisance.
“They have to choose for themselves,” she said.
Every day, too, SAFE-CR will email registered landlords a copy of the previous day’s police log, so they can see what might have happened on their property.
SAFE-CR also requires landlords to conduct criminal background checks on prospective tenants. The program is offering to provide a background check for $8. In addition, the program requires the city’s 2,500 or so landlords and property managers to attend a one-time training session. The first session, slated for Oct. 21, has nearly reached its 500-person limit.
SAFE-CR has been in the works at least six or seven years. Council members Monica Vernon and Pat Shey played key roles in getting the program in place.
Shey said landlords critical of the council’s earlier effort said the city of Davenport had the answer. So Vernon and a team of city officials went to Davenport, where they found a program taking on nuisances and reducing crime. SAFE-CR is modeled to a degree after that, he said.
Vernon said the city’s nuisance abatement effort is based on the broken-window theory, which says that eliminating nuisances can send a larger message about safety and quality of life. SAFE-CR embraces the notion that everyone has the “the right to the quiet enjoyment of their property,” a right denied by nuisance properties around them, she said.
“Our goal is not primarily punitive,” Vernon said. “Our goal is not to have nuisance properties.”
Residents should direct nuisance calls about specific properties to the city manager’s office or to specific city departments.
Kevin Ciabatti, director of the city’s Building Services Division, said residents aren’t bashful about lodging complaints. On average, his department had 165 new calls a month in the past six months, he said.
“We don’t think (SAFE-CR) is going to automatically turn this community into a utopia where we all hold hands and sing ‘Kumbaya,’ ” added Ray Nees, assistant director of the Building Services Division, “but it’s going to make property owners who should be responsible for problems they are creating in their neighborhoods have to take responsibility for them.”