Housing officials, code enforcers, legal advocates and nonprofit leaders are grappling with a complex problem with no clear solution: substandard housing.
“We know we have a huge problem,” consultant Martina Kuehl said at a recent round-table discussion on the topic. Kuehl has been facilitating more than a dozen public-input sessions on subjects such as poverty, fair housing and economic development in Tucson.
The sessions, including Friday’s discussion of substandard housing, will help determine the best use of millions in incoming U.S. Housing and Urban Development funding, including $7.6 million in Community Development Block Grant funds. The discussions will be used to develop the Pima County and Tucson five-year HUD consolidated plan, which will be in effect from mid-2015 to mid-2020.
The addition of a session on substandard housing was prompted by the Star’s reporting on aging and unsafe mobile homes and derelict trailer park owners, as well as lax code enforcement in unincorporated Pima County, officials said. Attendees at the meeting discussed Tucson’s aging housing stock, exploitative landlords, crumbling mobile homes and travel trailers, and the challenge of doing code enforcement without harming low-income residents who have few decent housing options.
Shutting down poorly run mobile home parks or condemning all dangerous structures could put poor and vulnerable people on the streets.
“Where are all these people going to go? We don’t have a safety net for them, and this is all they’ve got,” Teresa Williams, former code enforcement administrator for the city of Tucson, said at the meeting.
Some pointed to the need to bolster code enforcement — particularly in the county, which has adopted a limited property maintenance code to reduce enforcement and resident relocation costs.
But county officials also said resources should be targeted at addressing root problems, like a shortage of housing options, and preventing degradation of existing housing, rather than pouring efforts into enforcement.
“Funding enforcement is treating the symptom, not the cause,” said Carmine DeBonis, Pima County Development Services director. DeBonis said the county is looking at what it would cost to expand its limited property maintenance code and bring its enforcement in line with the city of Tucson’s. The city adopted a Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance in 2003 that empowered inspectors to crack down on slumlords and enforce minimum housing standards.
The county is also considering consolidating enforcement under one department, like the city, and prohibiting mobile homes built before 1976 — when federal trailer-construction standards went into effect — from entering the county.
But solutions will have to be multifaceted: Repairing a degraded roof or replacing plumbing can make a huge difference in someone’s life. But other times, the housing issues are entwined with social or behavioral problems such as mental illness, substance abuse or hoarding, said Scott Coverdale of Community Home Repair Projects of Arizona, which does home-repair work for low-income homeowners. He’s seen devastating living conditions, particularly in the area’s aging mobile home parks.
“The solution is just as complex as the problem,” Coverdale said. “It has to recognize the human element.”
One strategy could put a “softer face” on code inspectors, focusing on a more comprehensive approach that incorporates a social-worker mentality, some said at the meeting.
Sometimes demolishing a structure makes more sense — and is cheaper — than repairing it, but displacing residents can shift costs to the nonprofit sector.
“If a family becomes homeless, it costs five times as much for this community to get them back into housing” compared with the cost of repairing the home, said Gail Bouchee, program leader for Direct Center for Independence, a nonprofit advocacy group that does home repair. “We’re stretched to our max.”
Keeping families in dangerous homes isn’t an option, either. Partnerships with the private sector, such as homebuilders, could help address the gap between need and available public resources, DeBonis said.
More public-input sessions will be held in the spring, and a draft version of the five-year plan will be subject to a public comment period.