MH City Council seeks to step up code enforcement policy

By: Andy Kozlowski, | Madison - Park News | Published September 25, 2016

MADISON HEIGHTS — The hoarder home situation on Longfellow Avenue is being resolved. Police managed to execute a search warrant, and the home is now condemned and may be demolished if the city deems it unsalvageable.

The homeowner may also face civil infraction charges based on the conditions inside his home. In the meantime, certain members of the Madison Heights City Council have floated the idea of revisiting the city’s policy on code violations, with the hope of avoiding such trouble in the future.

Mayor Pro Tem Mark Bliss, with help from Mayor Brian Hartwell, is behind the push to improve how the city handles code enforcement.

“The goal is not to affect 95 percent of our residents who just couldn’t get around to mowing their lawn and need a reminder — we’re not going to create a police state going after the majority of residents who are doing their best. In fact, we want to help those residents and connect them with community groups who can give them assistance in their time of need,” Bliss said. “Where I want to make a change is for the top 5 percent of homes where we get consistent (code enforcement) cases, where it’s frequent and the same issue comes up repeatedly.

In those situations, I want to take the guesswork out of it and have a formalized escalation process that would kick in at specific stages.

“This could increase the severity of penalties and the frequency of visits to check the home,” Bliss said. “We might even do after-hours checks, sending officers to drive past the residence — things that we currently do on a more ad hoc, as needed basis, but we could do more often if we formalize the process. We could also do more to make city management aware of these situations, which will hopefully bring about an amicable resolution more quickly.”

City Councilman Robert Corbett has asked for similar improvements in the past, but he cautions that it must be approached with great care.

“The challenge with (code enforcement) is calibrating it carefully,” Corbett said. “In other words, you don’t want to start dragging in Grandma because she’s having trouble getting her lawn cut on a regular basis. You want to be careful with that. On the other hand, you want to set it so that situations like what happened on Longfellow might be avoided. There is no one-size-fits-all standard.”

Corbett also expressed doubt that stricter penalties would be enough to encourage a hoarder to comply. Neighbors raised concerns about the case in the 30000 block of Longfellow Avenue at the Aug. 8 council meeting, alleging that the resident has been ground-feeding cats since 2009 and attracting vermin including rats and raccoons. Neighbors said the flies and the stench of urine were unbearable. The property was also an eyesore, surrounded by clutter, overgrown shrubs and crude “booby traps” that made approaching the front door difficult.

The man had been ticketed for refusing to abide by city ordinance pertaining to the ground feeding of animals. He was convicted and placed on probation, but he allegedly continued to feed the feral cats large amounts of food. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail for violating his probation. Then he reportedly reverted back to his habits last year, when he was again found feeding feral cats. He was again warned and ticketed, convicted in court and placed on probation. But it wasn’t enough, neighbors said.

That’s why Corbett is doubtful that increasing the penalties would make a difference with the most extreme cases. But he acknowledges that it can’t hurt to try.

“Code enforcement receives over 1,400 complaints a year, but only a handful of them take this inordinate amount of time and find their way to the council table,” Corbett said. “But I have no problem with escalating reviews. … If you’re a business owner, and over six months you get four violations, that’s one thing; however, if it’s four over a couple years, I still wouldn’t find it any less egregious, because it’s the same offense, so why are you making our people come out to tell you over and over again. But many people get their clarification, fix their property, and we never hear from them again.” 

City Manager Ben Myers said in an email that currently, “If future issues arise at the property that are similar or the same as previous, the process of notification would begin again.” The mayor said in his own email that this is precisely the problem.

“The cycle of the city exhausting resources on repeat code offenders is what we need to address — heck, even acknowledge,” Hartwell said. “I’m reminded of the adage, ‘Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.’”

He noted in a phone call that code enforcement officials are among the busiest and hardest-working employees in the city, and that their ability to read people and exercise discretion is essential.

“But what the Longfellow case showed is we can have 30 to 40 contacts with one person, and each individual ticket or situation is resolved, but the person knows how to game the system and it happens so much that it’s depleting our department’s resources,” Hartwell said. “So Mark Bliss is recommending a system that reflects that, yes, mistakes happen and people can honestly forget to maybe clean up their yards, and the system allows for mistakes and quick repairs — but it also won’t allow people to game the system and waste resources.”