Ottumwa City Council discusses housing nuisances as Ottumwans say they want better housing maintenance

Published: Apr. 27, 2021 at 8:37 PM CDT
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OTTUMWA, Iowa (KYOU) - 61% of Ottumwans say better property maintenance would increase their quality of life. That’s according to a poll the City of Ottumwa took. Tuesday night, Ottumwa’s City Council met to discuss how to better enforcement, and how they can better communicate housing laws and regulations to citizens.

However, the meeting largely mainly focused on nuisance enforcement. Under Iowa Code, nuisances range from tall grass to completely derelict buildings. That includes things like junk in the yard, broken cars in the driveway, or noxious smells. City Planner Zach Simonson says enforcing all these regulations can be overwhelming to the City’s only nuisance inspector: “That’s 11,000 dwelling units. Not to mention the commercial and industrial property.” Which Councilmember Skip Stevens echoed: “It’s obvious: you don’t have enough help.”

However, Simonson didn’t recommend hiring on another inspector in his presentation at the Council Meeting. Instead, his focus - and the council’s focus - rested on habitual offenders. Simonson says it’s something they deal with a lot: “A property that we get a complaint about, we get it put back together, and two weeks later we’ve got to start over again.” His solution? More enforcement. Routine inspections. Higher penalties. Councilman Stevens says habitual nuisances and derelict buildings are harming the City. “These types of things that we’re talking about tonight are killing Ottumwa. It’s killing us.”

Simonson wants to inform Ottumwans more on what qualifies as a nuisance, hoping that will lower the number of offenders the city sees. His goal is for comprehensive communication with the public.

“To really put out what’s going on, what the consequences for the community are, where we have successes that we can celebrate…”

The City Council briefly talked over housing code enforcement. A building can be labeled as derelict for several reasons, including a lack of utilities, broken windows, or electrical issues. The City offers the homeowner a flexible six months to fix the problem. However, when the building’s owner changes, that six months resets. Some buildings have been labeled as derelict since 2017. Simonson wants to enforce a notice of change of ownership, as well as getting contact info for the current homeowners. Rental inspections are paused through mid-May, but once they’re reinstated, Simonson recommends increasing the frequency of inspections for low-performing buildings that could soon become derelict.

Finally, new construction permits were mentioned. This is when inspectors receive a permit application with plans, and okay each phase of construction. However, the city has struggled with seeing construction done without a permit. Simonson say “when work’s done without a permit, we aren’t able to see that that work was done correctly and safely.” He also mentions that it hurts laborers who follow the City’s rules.

While Tuesday night’s meeting was only a discussion, Simonson says once some more strategies are devised, he expected changes to start taking effect within the month.

Read the full list of the recommendations here.

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