In a recent post, I discussed the foolishness of owners who don’t fix their rental property and end up facing civil liability judgments that could have been avoided if they had just followed the fire code. The family of a victim of a porch collapse just reached a settlement for $2.7 million dollars in Chicago. http://www.suntimes.com/news/metro/2931482,CST-NWS-porch1130.article The victim was trying to adjust a chair on the porch when he fell through the rails. The Sun-Times reported that:
Through evidence discovery and motions, it was learned that almost six months prior to the incident, KMC’s liability insurance carrier warned the company that the large railing gap — 2 feet by 8 feet — should be covered with wire mesh, a release from attorneys said.
By the time of the tragedy, the repairs had not been made. The public doesn’t really understand how code enforcement saves lives and reduces costs to owners. A case like this demonstrates its importance.
What do you do with a person who never quite finishes a building project? Recently I had an inquiry from a building inspector regarding a situation where the person has obtained building permits on and off for years but has never finished the job. The neighbors are tired of looking at the unfinished builidng. It’s not unusual for the excuse in court to be, “I’m busy and can only work at it on the weekends.” If a reasonable amount of time has gone by without the completion of the work and the permit is due to expire, the building official may wish to add conditions if he or she is going to extend the permit. If the work still isn’t completed, maybe the permit shouldn’t be extended. If the permit expires and there are code violations on the property, they are subject to a notice of violation and an order for compliance. A court might order completion over a specific period of time as a condition of any sentence. The longer the buiding official allows this type of a situation to continue, the more difficult it will be to obtain compliance.
Many times I’ve heard tales from code officials as I travel around the country about politicians who have problem properties and who are above the law. Code officials are in a very difficult position when some of the worst properties are owned by people who vote on their budgets and salaries. Consequently, it’s refreshing when a story appears about a local government offiicial who is being taken to court for property maintenance issues. The Journal Sentinel reports that the Milwaukee County Board President is facing court action over five properties he owns including violations for rodent and roach infestation, loose window trim and moldy walls. http://www.jsonline.com/news/milwaukee/110894119.html The city finally filed charges because it was unable to get compliance any other way.
Sometimes a code violation is so serious that it demands more than the usual citation. In a recent case in Ontario, Cananda a landlord pleaded guilty to fire code violations after an explosion severely burnt a person in a residence converted to a rooming house. http://www.thebarrieexaminer.com/ArticleDisplay.aspx?e=2860945 The defendant was placed on probation but could have received jail. We should not forget that in some cases, the situation may cry out for criminal penalties. In Illinois we have a criminal housing management statute which probably isn’t used as often as it could be. It’s important for code officials to have a strong working relationship with the local governmental agency’s police department so law enforcement doesn’t hesitate to become involved when it should. The police are not going to investigate unless a complaint is made and the code official assists the police in understanding how bad the circumstances are. It is important to deter landlords who try to save money by gambling with tenants’ lives.
It’s hard to believe that the MGM fire took place 30 years ago today. My husband and I actually stayed at the hotel prior to the fire and had no idea how unsafe the building was. There’s a very good article about the problems that caused the loss of 85 lives at http://commandsafety.com/2010/11/1980-mgm-grand-hotel-fire-thirty-years-ago/ When local government officials are debating whether to require fire sprinklers, they need to be reminded about what can happen when they are not present in a high rise.
A landlord in Ontario, Canada recently pleaded guilty to fire code violations in connection with a fire that occurred in an apartment building. http://www.mykawartha.com/news/news/article/905196 What caught my attention in the article that discussed the case was a statement that landlords can be held liable if any occupant is injured in a fire because the building is not compliant with the fire code. This is true in the United States, as well. Owners run a risk when they do not fix code violations because if someone is injured or killed, there is very good chance the owner will get sued for negligence. Sometimes when a law colleague is pursuing a personal injury suit, I’ll get a call from him or her asking for help in understanding how building and fire codes work. Usually, I can find something in the code that covers a violation that led to the injury. Good landlords don’t take risks and try to avoid problems so they don’t end up on the other end of a lawsuit.
Once again a building has collapsed because the building code was ignored. 65 people were killed when a building collapsed in East Delhi, India. http://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2010/11/16/qa-how-safe-are-buildings-in-indian-cities/ India has a national building code but it is up to the local jurisdictions to implement it according to Virendra Kumar Paul, head of the department of building engineering and management at Delhi’s School of Planning and Architecture. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal he says that there is a lack of concern among authorities, building owners, engineers and management. Some buildings are constructed without a building permit or without any regard for the building codes. When I teach Legal Aspects of Code Administration, I discuss the cycle of complacency and outrage. Human beings throughout history have reacted strongly to large tragedies, adopting stronger codes, stepping up enforcement, etc. However, complacency sets in and the codes are ignored or weakened in the interest of expediency until the next tragedy. Then, the cycle continues until another building collapses.
The cycle of complacency and outrage
After writing this morning’s post, I came across a chart that someone had made to show who was the actual owner of his mortgage. You can find it at http://www.zerohedge.com/article/just-when-you-thought-you-knew-something-about-mortgage-securitizations One of the comments on the article says it looks like the wiring design on a hybrid car. Unbelievable.
We are all yearning for stability in the housing market so inspectors no longer have to deal with foreclosure issues and bank owned properties. However, it doesn’t appear that could happen anytime soon. In my classes around the country I’ve tried to explain how the real estate market got so bad with the sub-prime loan mess. I’ve explained that a real estate mortgage is not held by one lender but by thousand of investors who own a tiny piece if it after it has been bundled into a security sold on Wall Street. The robosigner scandal shows that the lenders really don’t have a clue as to where all of the paperwork from these loans is located. In some cases, there isn’t a person anywhere who can sign an affidavit to support a foreclosure because the paperwork is simply lost in the black hole of the mortgage securities hidden fortress. There is a fear this is going to drag out the crisis as lawsuits and investigations continue to find out what the financial industry was really up to in creating these monstrous financial inventions. There’s a good analysis of the potential problem at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/11/16/robosigners-foreclosures_n_784098.html?utm_source=DailyBrief&utm_campaign=111610&utm_medium=email&utm_content=NewsEntry&utm_term=Daily+Brief
Buyers of any type of real estate, residential or commercial, should always have the property checked out by a competent inspector who is familiar with building and fire code regulations. Most buyers can’t recognize less obvious building, property maintenance and fire code violations and could end up having to put thousands of dollars into a property after closing the sale. Under the International Property Maintenance Code, sellers aren’t supposed to transfer property for which they’ve received compliance orders without notifying the new owner of the order and obtaining a signed and notarized statement, signed by the new owner, acknowledging receipt of the compliance order and accepting without condition responsibility for making the corrections or repairs required. (Section 107.6) However, most property owners have never received a notice of violation because the problems are in the interior of the building and the local jurisdiction’s inspector has no way of knowing they exist. When I represented clients purchasing property, I always told them to obtain a home inspection (making sure such requirement was part of the contract) and then insisted that any code violations revealed be fixed by the seller before closing or that my client be given a credit for the cost of repair. If a seller refused to fix the problem, the buyer had the option of cancelling the contract pursuant to the conditions set forth in the contract. People try to save money by not having a lawyer when they buy property. However, this is the time when buyers could end up spending more money than they ever expected if they don’t have proper representation.