By JESSE DAVIS
Packaged inside the Maple City Rag newsletter and sitting on the counter at the city building department, you can find a piece of stiff green paper, labeled a “Neighborhood Improvement Referral Card.” The form allows residents to report concerns on everything from trash, potholes, animals and graffiti to pools and overgrown vegetation. A common use for them, however, is to report houses around town that are in disrepair.
When the building department is notified of dilapidated homes, either through the cards, walk-ins or another city employee, a building inspector, like Dawn Nordman, will take a trip to inspect the outside of the property. She looks for things like chipping and peeling paint, cracks in the foundation, broken windows, damaged gutters and rotting wood, all violations of the city’s Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance.
“If a specific thing was reported, I’ll look at that. If it’s more general, I’ll look over the whole property, anything from the roof to the foundation,” she said.
During the inspection, a camera is her best friend. By taking photos of the damage or deterioration, she doesn’t have to try to remember every detail, and if there is ever any dispute over her findings, she can provide them for review. Nordman specified that inspectors don’t actually go onto the property they are checking, staying on sidewalks, in alleys and in the city right-of-way so as not to violate the owner’s private property rights.
After returning to the office, inspectors have a form they use to check off individual violations and write down any particular notes they may have. That information is then used to draft a form letter to the property owner, making them aware of the violations. They receive the letter, a copy of the inspector’s photos and a copy of their notes.
“We used to have a rating system, but it bogged the process down. It’s easier to use common sense on this stuff,” Building Inspector Steve Bice said.
The system ranked violations with points based on deviations in extremity of the deterioration.
“It’s one thing if a property is significantly more damaged than another, but how do you look at two houses with peeling paint and say this one is worse than that one?” Nordman said.
Chipping and peeling paint is the most common issues she sees, usually coming in conjunction with others as well. She said close to 90 percent of the properties in violation have the problem.
“This year, tarps (on roofs) was a crazy thing,” Nordman said. “It’s not usually like that.”
Her only assumption was that because of record precipitation this year, more people who can’t afford roof repairs have been developing leaks and needed a temporary fix.
In cases where the property owner doesn’t know where to get the proper help or can’t afford it, Nordman gives them a handout she prepared that includes a listing of handymen and church groups that will help people for cheap or free, as well as tips on repairs.
“Most of the people I’ve handed it to are very grateful for it,” Nordman said.
One organization, the inspectors say, has been particularly helpful.
LaCasa Inc. has helped them out on a number of atypical cases, ranging from the disconcerting to the life-threatening.
One case of note was that of Carolyn Waltz and Jacob Folker. The two lived in Folker’s home, which he had grown up in. The house was deemed structurally unsound, even dangerously so. It was also filled with junk and debris. To further complicate the matter, Waltz suffered from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, and was confined to either her bed or a wheelchair. Folker took care of her.
Building inspectors finally connected the two with LaCasa, who helped them get into a rebuilt house elsewhere in town. After moving, Waltz’s health began to improve, eventually allowing her to walk and take care of herself again, and thus allowing Folker to resume working.
“If it weren’t for LaCasa, we wouldn’t have as much success as we do,” Bice said.
For the inspectors, the job changes every day.
“Some days I’ll do 12 to 15 inspections, others I’ll do five. If (Building Commissioner) Gary (Haney) is gone, he might leave a note on my desk of other things to do,” Nordman said. “I just do whatever the day brings.”
By JESSE DAVIS
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