Enforcement aids renters

By Michelle Landrum and Mark McGowan

When all else fails to alleviate housing condition problems between tenants and landlords, DeKalb Code Enforcement can help get needed repairs completed.

The first step in getting apartment repairs completed is talking to the landlord. If all attempts at communication fail, tenants “have the option of seeking legal help,” said Bill Nicklas, director of DeKalb Building and Community Services.

“The city doesn’t like to interfere in civil complaints,” he said. Tenants should notify their landlord of complaints first, and contact the city “after exhausting all efforts” of communication, he said.

It is the DeKalb Code Enforcement division’s job to make sure city health, safety and quality of life ordinances are upheld.

If tenants have a complaint about the condition of their apartment, they should first notify the landlord in writing. In the letter, tenants should specify a reasonable date by which repairs should be completed.

The amount of time depends on the severity of repairs. More time should allotted for a broken window screen than repairs such as gas leaks demanding immediate attention.

If repairs are not completed and other efforts to remedy the situation fail, tenants should contact the city.

A code enforcement officer will respond to a call within 24 hours, Nicklas said. “We try to take any emergency situation and rank others by how urgent or perilous the situation is,” he said.

Residents must be present when the code enforcement officer inspects the premises. Tenants should tell the officer how long the condition has been present and describe their communication with the landlord. Physical evidence of the complaint also is necessary.

Housing code violations include inadequate fire protection and pest control, broken windows, stairs and porches, as well as other conditions. During the inspection, officers often find other violations the resident was unaware of, Nicklas said.

Code enforcement then will notify the landlord of the inspection in writing, again setting a reasonable deadline for repairs. Usually, the “first notice is all that’s necessary,” Nicklas said. He estimated 70 percent of landlords make repairs after the first notice.

The remaining 30 percent of the landlords, Nicklas said, often are busy or not in the habit of making speedy repairs. About 5 to 10 percent of the landlords notified end up with tickets or court action, he said. Landlords are fined $25 for each offense.

Some property owners complain they have too many rental units to make prompt repairs, Nicklas said. “That’s no excuse,” he said. “I’ll hold a landlord responsible for a building whether they have five units or 500 units.”

However, tenants also have responsibilities. Some nuisances are caused by careless tenants. Residents often dump their garbage at the curb several days before pickup without placing it in steel or plastic containers, Nicklas said. Drunk residents also sometimes drive up on the lawn and park their cars there, he said.

“When I first moved off campus, I had a lot to learn about running a household,” Nicklas said. “We find oftentimes people have to grow into that role.” Tenants and landlords should “be aware of the image they project,” he said.