‘We’re not the bad guy’

Three hours on the job with a housing code enforcement officer

Jul 23, 2014 at 5:00 am

The first house we pull up to is a cute little bungalow on a quiet street. “I don’t think they did it,” remarks Lynn Witt, her eyes focused on the big, leafy branches waving to us from behind the home. “I hate doing this to owner-occupied homes.”

By this she means citing or confirming housing violations. Witt is one of the 40 code enforcement officers employed by Louisville Metro to answer citizen complaints and inspect homes and properties. Today she’s come here — with me in tow — for a reinspection, more specifically to check whether the owners of this property have adequately dealt with a dead tree they were previously cited for.

A man sitting on the porch across the street shouts out to us: “I don’t think nobody’s home.” Witt waves back at the man with a smile before responding, “That’s OK. I’m going to knock anyway.”

After a decade on the job, she has learned to always announce your presence with a knock or doorbell ring. Startling people on their domain is asking for trouble, and some residents are none too pleased to be told by some government official what to do with their properties. That’s why Witt never parks in somebody’s driveway or anyplace where your car can get blocked in because “sometimes you just have to get away.” Likewise, watch out for dogs for fear of getting bitten and needing 17 stitches, like she did years ago.

Turns out, the man across the street is correct. Nobody’s home at the bungalow, so Witt walks down the driveway into the backyard, where her frown immediately turns into a smile. There, sitting in the middle of the backyard, is a freshly cut tree stump.

“They did it!”

This means that, from the built-in computer station in her car, Witt can email the code board and let them know the owners have complied and the case can be closed. Before she has a chance to do that, she notices a loose branch sitting in one of the backyard’s remaining trees — technically, a violation. She decides to let this one go. It doesn’t pose much of a threat, and she has a soft spot for anyone dealing with tree removals. Dealing with those can be expensive, upwards of $3,000, depending on the size of the tree and its environment.

“Sometimes people think we’re the bad guy, but we’re not the bad guy,” says Witt. “We really do work with all people.”

Every few months, Louisville Metro officials hold a meeting on vacant and abandoned properties, called VAPSTAT, to update the public on the progress of current programs. At the most recent meeting, held at the end of May, Mayor Greg Fischer said that no other issue has commanded as much time and resources from local government as this.

In May of this year, 8,570 total properties (6,720 of them residential) had inactive water service for three or more months — one indicator of being vacant or abandoned. That’s actually more than the same month last year, when 8,414 total properties met that criterion. The good news among that is that, despite the total growth, the number of residential properties has gone down in the past year. In May of 2013, there were 7,018 residential properties with inactive water for three or more month.

Programs, like the Metro-initiated foreclosures, have been progressing, albeit more slowly than anybody planned. In the past year, 93 have been initiated (up from a baseline of nine in the fiscal year 2012), 99 structures have been demolished (up from 67), and 39 properties in the land bank have been disposed of (up from 14). Mayor Fischer said at the meeting he believes progress will come more quickly in the future now that the structures are in place that allow for these foreclosures and demolitions to happen. Still, the issue remains an uphill battle for the city.

Witt is on the frontlines of this battle. Driving through her zone, she points out a handful of empty lots where structure she had demolished once stood, then there’s a handful more she’s hoping will be next. She shows me one that’s been partially boarded up. The grass is up to our knees and the foundation is starting to crumble on one side. Here, the owner, a lawyer, stands in the way. It can be frustrating, says Witt, to deal with owners who don’t seem to care about what their blighted property is doing to an area’s financial and emotional value.

Though she doesn’t live in the area she has been assigned to, she is invested in the community. She has worked this zone, which stretches from Taylorsville to Dixie Highway and the Watterson to Seventh Street, for seven years. (Prior to choosing this area, she was a floater who filled in for people all around the city.) She explains she chose her area strategically by one thing: bathroom access. When you are in your car the entire day, having a restroom nearby is key.

Code enforcement officers don’t have an official quota to meet, but Witt says she aims for a dozen a day. Some are relatively straight forward, like the reinspection of the tree. Others are more involved, like when she visits properties and sets rat bait. Today, she’ll do both of those things and then some. Everything is request driven — a neighbor reports code violations or someone from a councilmember’s office calls because they’ve gotten repeated complains from their constituents.

“Occasionally we’ll open our own ticket, but really, if we drove around looking for our own stuff, we’d be backed up forever,” she explains.