Neighborhood ‘clean sweeps’ again target blight

By: Brian Louwers | Warren Weekly | Published May 4, 2011

WARREN — Unlicensed vehicles. Tall grass. Chipped paint on buildings. Overflowing trash bins.

Inspectors have again begun moving “house-to-house” and “door-to-door” through Warren neighborhoods this spring, firing up the “Clean Sweep” program for a fourth season and looking for all those things and more.

The sweeps, which administrators said continued to pool resources from various city departments, began targeting a section of the city bounded by Eight Mile, Nine Mile, Van Dyke and Hoover April 18-22.

They’ll be coming to a neighborhood near you in the weeks to come, where Department of Property Maintenance Inspection personnel will check residential homes. Zoning inspectors will check apartments, commercial businesses and industrial properties. The Department of Public Works will sweep the streets. And the Warren police will ticket vehicles that are abandoned or improperly tagged.

“We’re covering every possible situation. It’s a pretty aggressive program,” Warren Public Service Director Richard Sabaugh said. “It’s actually unprecedented in Warren’s history.”

Admittedly, officials said the vast majority of what’s found is minor, often very minor, with things like missing garbage can lids, or trash improperly stored in front of the home netting property owners a “warning notice.”

“Most of the violations are kind of just easily corrected,” Sabaugh said. “For the most part, everyone complies.”

The statistics provided by the city appear to back that up.

Since the Clean Sweep program began in 2008 under Mayor Jim Fouts, city inspectors have visited 51,479 commercial, residential and industrial properties. Sabaugh said that number included properties visited more than once, where problems were identified and maybe not corrected.

Inspectors wrote 22,910 warning notices during those visits. After that, property owners were typically given five days to get right with the city’s ordinances. As a last resort, depending on the issue, violators were subject to fines of up to $1,000.

What’s telling, officials said, is that they’ve issued only 446 tickets through the program. Fines assessed by a magistrate at the 37th District Court can reach up to $250 for each infraction. But officials and inspectors said it rarely comes to that.

“We need, actually, like two weeks to give them warning notices, and then go back and check if they’ve cleaned up their property,” Sabaugh said. “The compliance rate is like 99 percent. We don’t issue that many tickets. All they have to do is see that $1,000 fine, or up to a $1,000 fine, and they clean up the property before we get there. We don’t surprise ‘em. They know we’re comin’.”

If it’s a bank-owned home in some state of foreclosure, Sabaugh said the city could prune trees, trim the bushes, or cut tall grass and bill for it later through a lien. And, he said, those foreclosed homes must be registered with the city. Inspectors check for that, too.

The Building Department and county health officials are responsible for posting notices on any vacant homes, sometimes identified by inspectors moving through neighborhoods during the sweeps. After the initial postings, Warren inspectors tag the homes again with a second notice, letting the owners or residents know that the properties are being monitored by the city for maintenance issues.

Inspectors also check that any rental properties they visit are registered, as required, through the city’s Rental Division. Any “For Rent” signs are reported by inspectors, and the phone numbers on the signs are used to check the registration status.

Sabaugh said there are about 6,200 registered rentals in Warren.

Apartments are subject to inspection every two years, and the status of those biennial checks is also verified.

Making Warren a “cleaner, safer city” has become a mantra of the Fouts administration, but some have said the effort has gone too far, or in the wrong direction.

Jim McDannel, a community activist representing the Lincoln Neighborhood Association of South Warren, has criticized the administration’s practice of citing taxpaying homeowners for minor issues like chipped paint on a door, or grass that’s borderline untidy.

McDannel said the real problem is shoddy landlords, who routinely fail to keep their properties up to snuff.

“They’re targeting everybody, but in my opinion, they’re targeting the homeowners down here,” McDannel said. “We’ve made an investment down here. We can’t walk away like a landlord can.”

McDannel said the city’s rules governing rental properties should be tougher on “slumlords” and less focused on everyday homeowners, like a senior citizen in his neighborhood recently given a warning notice about garbage and garbage cans on her property.

Joel Vander Linden and Gregory Grzybowski of the city’s Department of Property Maintenance Inspection say the vast majority of those they come into contact with are pleased that the city is doing something about problems in the neighborhoods.

When they’re not doing the sweeps, they said they’re responding to individual reports that are driven by neighbor complaints.

“They’ll come out here and say, ‘Thanks for doing it. Thanks for cleaning up the block,’” Grzybowski said. “The uncommon thing, they’ll come out and say, ‘F-you.’”

Vander Linden said inspectors list whatever they see as a violation, regardless of whether it’s at a rental or at the home of a property owner. Once a citation is given, he said, the city is willing to work with the property owner to get the issue resolved.

“You just write it up, whatever you see,” Vander Linden said. “Our goal is compliance. We just want it to be cleaned up.”

Fouts said the Clean Sweep program is a first in the city’s 53-year history.

“I think what is great is we’ve been able to get cooperation from people. Once people are fully informed, and they know the consequences, most people are willing to take care of their neighborhood,” Fouts said.

“We’re not interested in getting money from them. All we’re interested in is making sure the neighborhood remains a clean place. Blight begets crime. It’s really part of my vision for a cleaner, safer city.”

Officials again encouraged anyone with concerns about blight of any type in their neighborhood to contact the city’s 24-hour hotline at (586) 574-4662.