Archive for February, 2009

Leaving Las Vegas

February 26th, 2009 No comments

I just returned from Educode in Las Vegas where I taught Legal Aspects of Code Administration.  It was a great conference that was well attended despite the economic downturn.  People came from all over the country and everyone shared stories of the impact of the economy on their communities.  I’m hoping some of the attendees will share their stories on this website about the creative things they’re doing.One of the tools I recommended in class was this video which explains the extent of the housing meltdown.  The Crisis of Credit Visualized It’s well worth a look.   I especially enjoyed meeting building administrators from New Orleans.  I was touched by their passion as they face enormous problems in trying to restore their neighborhoods. Our foreclosure problems pale in comparison to what they’ve been facing.

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Dealing with Big Corporate Defendants

February 18th, 2009 No comments

One of the major frustrations I have is when I have to prosecute a large corporation for a violation.  Serving the registered agent is easy because the name and address can be found on a state’s Secretary of State Corporation website but I’ve yet to get any kind of response by serving the registered agent (but it does mean I can get a default judgment).  It seems like those notices go into a black hole for unresponsive businesses.  So far the most successful thing I’ve done is send a letter with a copy of the ticket to the president of the corporation (I find that information at the same Secretary of State website).  I don’t usually get a phone call from the president (big surprise) but usually the letter is passed along to someone with the authority to get something done  I’ve been fortunate that it usually results in someone bringing the property into compliance.

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188 Cats Removed from Mobile Home

February 15th, 2009 No comments

I wish I could say this is rare but I prosecuted a case where a woman had over 100 dogs in her house.  Here’s the article that describes what happened while I was at the Region III conference in Minneapolis.  The attendees were showing me the story in the Star Tribune:

Thank heaven most of these uninhabitable houses don’t involve innocent animals, just trash and garbage.  These are very difficult cases to prosecute because many of the people do suffer from some type of mental illness, like obsessive/compulsive disorder or hoarding.  They admit they’re guilty but the real problem is getting compliance.  The times when I’ve had success is when the person likes the inspector assigned to the case, the court orders compliance,  and the inspector monitors the cleanup on a weekly or monthly basis, constantly setting goals for the next inspection.  I think by breaking down the cleanup task, it helps the defendant not feel so overwhelmed.  Because there is a court order, the defendant feels some pressure to work with the inspector.  If the offender is not cooperative, the inspector condemns the property as unfit for human habitation  and then issues tickets for the violations and for remaining in a condemned property.  It’s a very sorry situation, especially if children or animals are involved.  If there are children, child protective services have to be called by the inspector. Animal rescue groups will assist with removing animals.

Vacant Building Registries Become Popular

February 15th, 2009 1 comment

I’m back from my trip to Minnesota which was a wonderful opportunity to speak with inspectors who are really concerned about the foreclosure issues facing all of us.  Up there, they’ve even coined a term for vacant houses where the pipes burst after a thaw, “ice houses”.  I’ve seen my own share of them in the Chicago suburbs. Typically what’s happening is that the house goes into foreclosure, the owners move out without getting the water shut off, the pipes freeze and then burst during a thaw.  Mold is the next problem.  Sometimes the mold growth becomes so bad, demolition is the only option.  One way we’ve found out about these buildings is by noticing a tremendous use in water over a very short period of time.  We then try to contact someone at the lender who is responsive (with mixed results) or else obtain an administrative search warrant to get in.  Awhile back I spoke at an ICC symposium on property maintenance and heard a speaker from Cincinnati describe its vacant building registry.  This ordinance applies to buildings that have been ordered vacated by the City because they are unsafe or unsanitary.  You can find out more information at We have a different problem by us.  In Hinsdale, Illinois, for example, we were seeing more buildings remain vacant after being purchased for “teardowns”.  The market for new construction is pretty slow so the old houses sit.  We experienced people breaking in and stealing anything they could from them.  We’ve caught teens partying inside them also.  I proposed passing a vacant building registry ordinance so we could get contact information, charge a sufficient fee to monitor the program, and alert the police and the fire department that the buildings were unoccupied.  Hinsdale’s has recently gone into effect and I’m prosecuting my first violation for failure to register.  It’s not available online yet but I’ll post it when it does.  Already the police have told me they like having the information pop up on their in-car computers when they arrive on a call at the location.  I’m interested in finding other towns who are happy with their registries so let me know of you work in one of them.

Greetings from Minnesota

February 10th, 2009 3 comments

I’m in Brooklyn Park, MN teaching at the Region III Institute sponsored by the Association  of Minnesota Building Officials.  It’s always a well attended week long event and the hospitality is warm and friendly. (However, last time I taught at the Institute it was 20 below zero. It’s 50 degrees warmer today.)   I’ll be teaching two courses, Legal Aspects of Code Administration and Advanced Legal Aspects for Property Maintenance Inspectors.  At dinner tonight it was interesting hearing what folks in other parts of the country are experiencing regarding the economic downturn. Inspectors are now seeing a decline in commercial projects as well as residential.  Most new construction is stagnant (except in Fargo, N.D. which is doing pretty well so far).  Property maintenance is on everyone’s mind.  No one thinks this slow down will be over with soon.  I’ve noticed that even building officials are talking about property maintenance issues.  Cross-training is becoming important so building inspectors can do property maintenance inspections in order to justify keeping those positions in the budget.  I’ve been encouraging my clients to enact vacant building registry ordinances so that the police and fire departments know which buildings are empty and the code department has information on how many vacant buildings exist in a municipality.  I think it’s critical to have contact information on responsible parties for these buildings so when weeds get too high or the pipes burst and mold starts growing, the inspectors know who to call.  In my property maintenance class, I try to address these issues.

What caused the foreclosure mess?

February 3rd, 2009 No comments

I’m a great believer in understanding how we got into this economic disaster that is having a direct impact on code enforcement.  I saw a very interesting video at the Wall Street Journal website called the “End of Wall Street: What Happened”.  Part 1 is as good a summary as I’ve seen. You can find it at

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Researching Ownership Key to Avoiding Mistakes

February 3rd, 2009 1 comment

One of the most common problems I encounter as a prosecutor occurs when inspectors jump to conclusions about who owns property.  Because of liability considerations, it is rare for an individual to own an apartment complex or commercial real estate in his or her individual name.  If an inspector tells me that the owner of a large building is a living, breathing human being, my next question is “Did you check with the Recorder of Deeds?”  The answer is almost always “no”. The records kept by the Recorder of Deeds are the gold standard for determining who owns the property.  Until an inspector checks for that information, the research job is incomplete.  Lucky for all of us, many of these records can be found posted online on the Recorder’s website.  Inspectors can often obtain a copy of a deed of ownership for a small charge or sometimes for free at the website.  It used to be you’d have to drive out to the county building to get the information or spend time on hold waiting for somebody at the Recorder’s office to help you.  This kind of access has really made me more efficient.

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