Dallas City Code Air Conditioning – Amy Del Toro is a blindfolded inspector in an apartment building in Dallas.
This is the third story in the fourth episode. Read stories 1, 2, and 4. Amy Del Toro sweeps the rails, checks the temperature on the faucet, scans the walls for water damage, and looks for evidence of a six-legged businessman in the apartment she’s inspecting.
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“Sometimes when they look pretty on the outside, we want to get on the inside,” said the Dallas code reviewer as he checked the list on his clipboard.
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Del Toro says her job is to make sure apartment buildings in Northeast Dallas are safe, clean and up to city standards. As she climbed the stairs to make sure the smoke detectors were working properly in the high-rises recently, Del Toro said that in many ways, the health and well-being of Dallas residents depended on her.
Codex inspectors in Dallas face a difficult task. Their job is to protect people from dangerous or unhealthy situations. And fewer than a dozen are trained to focus on multi-tenant real estate — in cities with tens of thousands of housing units.
Other factors make it difficult to inspect the apartment. Some tenants fear retaliation if they complain about the conditions in their apartment. The city’s 311 system is very difficult to navigate. And for months, internal monitoring of the code was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
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What happened in Dallas is not unusual. Tenant advocacy groups report that similar problems can be found in cities across the state.
In Texas, landlord-friendly advocates say it’s easy to evict tenants. And often local authorities have difficulty getting owners to make repairs. Most of the onus is placed on tenants to fight for suitable housing.
Even when residents protested, Del Toro said it was difficult for censors to respond. React quickly.
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For example, residents can call 311 and complain about problems in their apartment. Often when you check the code, do it at the property – about a few days later – the problem is temporarily fixed. And Del Toro said that has frustrated many locals.
“We will come one day and something is wrong. Then the next day it works. “It’s hard for us to do any practice when we can’t provide evidence that it doesn’t work.”
In Vickery Meadow, for example, a minority neighborhood in northeast Dallas, dozens of languages are spoken. Immigrants and refugees who call 311 may not be able to connect with those who speak their language. The city only recently began hiring Spanish-speaking agents, but other common languages in the neighborhood include Dari, Khmer, Burmese, French and Bosnian. The city said it has contracted for interpretation services for 311 calls.
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Refugees in Vickery Meadow told KERA that the lack of affordable housing is one of the big reasons they are afraid to speak out. There aren’t many other housing options in Dallas, and they fear they have nowhere to go. And the cost of moving can affect or even break the budget.
“That’s why a lot of people don’t want to talk about it. “Even I’m scared.” “It’s the only thing my parents can have” (he asked that his real name not be used because he was worried about retaliation).
KERA asked the company that owns the Ivy Apartments and other nearby buildings to comment on tenants’ concerns about retaliation. Attorney for Nuran, Inc. Did not respond to written questions in the email and did not appear for an interview.
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Del Toro said fear of retaliation is what she’s heard from tenants in the city’s northeast suburbs. This includes Vickery Meadow.
“As the locals told me, the administration threatened them and said they were going to call ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement]. That’s why they don’t complain,” Del Toro said. Residents also told Del Toro that some apartment managers threatened to raise rents if they complained.
Sometimes, when Del Toro finds a big problem, she realizes that tenants “have been living with it for years because they’re too scared to protest in the city.”
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Dallas city code prohibits landlords from raising rents in retaliation for complaining tenants. It also prevents a landlord from reducing service or attempting to evict a tenant “within six months after the tenant makes a valid claim.”
If tenants are retaliated against, they can file a complaint with the city. But Sandy Rollins, CEO of the Texas Tenants Union, said it’s a long process and most people haven’t had time to “fight through everything.”
“Landlords feel empowered to abuse because they know how hard it is for tenants to take responsibility,” Rollins said.
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Current and former resident Vickery Meadow said landlords may not care much about the consequences if a tenant chooses to leave or is forced to leave. Supplying new tenants can seem almost priceless as conflict and poverty push refugees and immigrants to the United States. Thousands of new refugees from Afghanistan are staying in hotels while they stay. The wait for permanent housing and the crisis in Ukraine are already creating more refugees.
Del Toro shakes the rails of an upstairs apartment to ensure the safety of the balcony.
But when the outbreak hit, inspections of occupied apartment interiors were suspended for about nine months, according to city officials. This makes it difficult to spot breaches of key health and safety codes.
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“We don’t want to expose residents or our code officers to unnecessary communications that could otherwise infect Kovid,” said Carl Simpson, director of the Dallas Department of Law Enforcement.
Simpson’s department transformed its operations into a litigation-driven system. This means that if the occupant doesn’t complain, it’s unlikely that the code inspector will find out about the problem. And the number of complaints seems to have dropped sharply since the introduction of the incentive system.
The complaints-driven system also focuses on basic problems such as a lack of hot water, air conditioning or heating, as well as electrical problems and water leaks.
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“We’re really focusing on those life safety issues and those exterior issues with the apartment building, whether it’s the pool or whatever balcony you can see,” Simpson said.
The coding department is experimenting with new ways to verify almost anything with FaceTime or other video applications. But Ariel Garcia, the Northeast Region manager of the law enforcement division, said the work of a code reviewer is best done directly.
“A lot of work, you can find ways to transform into virtual. You can hardly do it. “We need to have boots on the ground to take care of these abuses or catch problems before they become abuses,” Garcia said.
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In cities with more than 2,700 tenants, including apartments, not only 20 city code inspectors are “specially trained (ed) to handle multi-tenant issues and inspections.” According to a statement issued by city officials to Kera
The city estimates that Vickery Meadow alone has nearly 12,000 private apartments. Four code inspectors with special multinational training were “dedicated to the Northeast District,” including Vickery Meadow.
And there is a high demand for housing. About two-thirds of Dallas residents live in rental housing, which can drive up rents.
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“Every day we talk to people who are in a non-standard place but can’t move,” Rollins said.
Rollins said homeowners can take advantage of the low-quality housing supply as the supply of affordable housing dwindles. This creates a financial burden on the family and determines where they can live.
About 1,869 apartments were built and completed in Dallas in the first six months of 2020, according to the city. Such enhancements only increase the burden on code controllers. That burden is likely to increase further as cities move beyond a grievance-driven system created during an epidemic.
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“If you notice downtown [Dallas], every faucet you see is a new apartment building that will be filled with dozens of people. So there’s a huge need for inspectors who know how to inspect residential buildings,” Garcia said.
That’s a concern for the City Council, which voted last year to approve the city budget hiring an additional 31 code enforcement officers to upgrade the neighborhood’s code program, according to the department.
“The department will continue to seek talent who are interested in improving the community’s quality of life. All new leases are trained to address code violations in residential and multifamily neighborhoods,” according to a statement from the compliance department.
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“The compliance service considers training opportunities that” should allow for adequate coverage. However, we will continue to assess our resources to ensure adequate staffing,” the statement said.
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