Casper City Council Eyes Enhancing Housing Safety Enforcement
- Black mold.
- Mice, cockroaches and other vermin.
- Out-of-code electrical connections.
- Feces on floors and smeared on walls.
- No heat.
- Lack of smoke detectors.
- Plumbing leaks.
- Surfacing sewage.
- Utilities shut off.
Some renters in Casper endure these conditions because their landlords have failed to maintain their properties, and the Casper City Council is looking at an ordinance to protect tenants.
"Currently, we don't believe we have the tools to respond," City Manager Carter Napier said at council's work session on Tuesday.
According to a memo to Napier from city officials in the work session agenda, residents in many cases have few options available for housing, and are forced to live in these subpar conditions.
"The City and its partner agencies receive phone calls every week from citizens that are being subjected to horrific living conditions. Unfortunately, most times, the City cannot offer assistance because of a lack of legal authority to intervene," according to the memo.
The proposed ordinance about unsafe conditions would trigger an inspection based on a complaint without the need for a permit for an inspection, said Dan Elston of the city's building department.
The council needs to balance concerns about government overreach and provide minimum maintenance standards, so it wants to make amendments to the municipal code that would address, in limited terms, unsafe structures and equipment.
The city enforces the 2018 International Building Code, which includes a section about unsafe conditions, but the code is general and does not address nine specific conditions in the proposed ordinance:
- Means of egress.
- Egress lighting.
- Fire hazard.
- Heating facilities.
- Electrical systems.
- Water systems.
- Sanitary drainage.
- Vacant structures.
The ordinance's listed specific unsafe conditions would give the city the ability to inspect and enforce health and safety codes. They also would give renters, neighbors, employees and social service agencies the ability to file a complaint to trigger an inspection, according to the agenda.
Several governmental and social service agencies -- Casper-Natrona County Health Department, Wyoming Department of Family Services and Meals on Wheels -- have monitored some of the deplorable living conditions occupied by their clients, according to the agenda. Other agencies such as the Wyoming Rescue Mission also have noted these living conditions and told the city council and staff about them.
The agencies and the Casper Fire Department submitted these pictures to the city:
Ruth Heald of the health department and Mark Harshman of the Casper Fire Department said Tuesday the photos were taken when they were called for welfare checks or responding to a fire or emergency call.
Council member Shawn Johnson asked if the conditions shown in the photos could have been caused by the tenants, and could the proposed ordinance penalize the landlord.
Napier responded that the current ordinances protect landlords from irresponsible tenants, he said. "But what we don't have is the other side of it where a tenant is not as protected from things that a landowner may be exacting upon that tenant."
One of photo showed a very messy room, and council member Ken Bates said he's seen houses that disorganized and wondered if the proposed ordinance could lead to authorities trying to make residents be as neat as the rest of the community.
Mayor Steve Freel responded the issue in that photo was about the ability for someone to get out of the residence. "This is not a dirty house ordinance."
Health department director Anna Kinder said she has conducted home health visits for years, and the problems in many residences are worse than the pictures indicate.
The proposed ordinance would enable residents to file complaints and let the city take action, Kinder said.
Council member Charlie Powell said the proposed ordinance is long overdue, but wondered where a tenant goes if the residence is deemed unsafe.
The city's community development director Liz Becher said emergency housing is available through the Casper Housing Authority, the Life Steps Campus and other places.
Powell also wondered if a landlord retaliates by evicting a tenant who files a complaint.
Council member Mike Huber responded that state law protects tenants if they are current on their rent.
Napier said potential retaliation will be among the issues the council and the public will need to consider as the proposed ordinance takes shape. People will be able to comment on it on the city's website, he added.