Rural code enforcement inconsistent

by Jane

Reviewed: June 12, 2024

Visitor Question: I live in rural Iowa and city codes are just coming into service. While I sometimes wonder who thought some up, basically I agree with them.

I had tenants who were living in this house when it caught fire, destroying all but the wall studs, exterior siding and the basement (along with furnace and water heater). It was still solid and I did replace the trusses and roof. Yes, it's taking a while. I was in the hospital much of last year. Eighteen months ago, the city wanted the roof. My crew was given very little time to complete the task, and the snow did chase them off. Last year, I was laid up. Now the city wants the peaks sided and I agree, they should be.

What concerns me is the houses in much worse shape (they're bad and have occupants) aren't getting any type of Notice! Can they single me out or should they be getting a Notice also?

Editors Reply: We appreciate your concern for tenant safety.

As for who thinks up the codes, most places adopt standard international codes, which are written and revised by panels of code enforcement and building safety experts. Sometimes they may go a little overboard because they see the dramatic aspects of what can go wrong, a little like your doctor seeing the worst possible outcomes. But unlike your doctor's recommendations, codes become laws. But basically the authors are genuinely seeking the best of human safety and health. Thanks for your generally supportive tone.

Consistency of enforcement is a challenge everywhere, and your rural community will be no exception. I can't resist saying you could just have easily written a question to the effect of urban code enforcement being inconsistent. Almost every place now runs their code enforcement on a complaint basis, meaning that a neighbor, passerby, or code enforcement officer notices a situation and turns it in to the code enforcement office. In your case, the fire made the potential for code violations obvious and probable.

If you want to do something about other rental homes that are in poor condition and potentially hazardous for tenants, you have two options. You can complain yourself about specific other properties, by phone or sometimes online. You may or may not be granted complete anonymity, but most places will honor your request for the property owner not to be able to discover your identity. Once the inspector visits the property, it is the inspector who is on the hook, not the complainant.

If that is more personal involvement than you want, also consider making a brief presentation or comment to your county or city council about the condition of rental properties generally. Photos would make that more effective. If you go this route, try to remain objective and stay above seeming resentful that you have to comply while others are not being given a notice. Just point out dangerous conditions and ask for thorough enforcement.

Most places don't attempt systematic code enforcement, which is the option to complaint-based enforcement. However, it could be worthwhile to ask for a sweep of all rental housing, all rental housing in a certain area, or whatever else you think would be most effective. That would be a steep request for most governments, but if nothing else, you raise awareness of the issue.

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