Ceiling collapse at Athens rental reveals a gap in code enforcement inspections

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — A ceiling collapsed at a rental unit on North Shafer Street in Athens this summer because of a roof leak.

No one was hurt, but the tenants were relocated and the home could not be reoccupied until it was deemed safe.

The city’s code enforcement office had inspected the rental on June 8, eight weeks before the incident.

But it didn’t inspect the roof. And that’s because city code officers don’t climb up on rooftops as part of their annual inspection of rentals.

“We’d have to have ladders and training and that kind of stuff to be able to start to do that,” said David Riggs, the city’s code enforcement director.

The ceiling collapse reveals the challenges the code enforcement office faces when it comes to making sure rentals are safe and how little authority it has to penalize landlords who routinely fail inspections. It also raises questions about what steps the city could take to strengthen the inspection process and make it more efficient.

Not enough officers to inspect rooftops

The city’s four code enforcement officers are already stretched thin doing annual inspections of the 5,600 or so rental units in Athens.

That works out to at least five inspections each workday for each officer, with each inspection taking on average about an hour. This is on top of the other duties they perform.

Also, a significant percentage of Athens rentals fail their annual inspections, triggering reinspections that consume even more time.

Roofs are included on the checklist of things code officers are supposed to inspect every year. But this amounts to a visual inspection from ground level, Riggs said. His officers do not climb up on the rooftops and walk around for a closer look.

Riggs said he would need more officers to do that.

And this is precisely the problem, according to United Athens County Tenants, which advocates for tenants rights. The group prepared a lengthy report on the ceiling collapse and concluded that the underlying problem is there are not enough code officers to ensure landlords are meeting the citys many code requirements for their rentals.

One code section requires that the roof shall be structurally sound, tight and not have defects which might admit rain, and roof drainage shall be adequate to prevent rainwater from causing dampness in the walls or interior portion of the building.”

This could be difficult to determine without getting up on the roof for a close inspection.

One possible solution is the city could require landlords to pay a licensed professional to have the roofs on their rentals inspected periodically and submit some kind of certification. But a new requirement like that would have to come through the City Council, Riggs said.

Zack Eckles, a policy advocate with the Ohio Poverty Law Center, suggests taking it a step further. He noted that when homes are sold a thorough inspection is often done by a licensed home inspector. This includes the foundation, walls, roof, electrical, plumbing and other things and typically runs a few hundred dollars.

Why not require these inspections for rentals every couple of years, Eckles said.

“I mean a rental property is a business, right? And we regulate businesses to have consumer safeguards,” he said. “An inspection is already part of the deal with a rental license in Athens. So it might as well be an effective part of the deal.”

In a followup interview, Riggs said he is now looking into cost-effective ways of getting rental rooftops inspected.

But even a periodic roof inspection won’t necessarily prevent ceiling collapses or other damage, Riggs said. Roofs are subject to almost constant abuse from the weather, and problems can easily develop between inspections.

“We can’t predict that there absolutely is going to be roof leak in the next three months, or the next six months, or something like that,” he said.

For now, it’s up to landlords to take the initiative to stay on top of ongoing roof maintenance.

Rusty Rittenhouse, an Athens attorney who represents the owner of the Shafer Street rental, said the landlord has the roofs of all his rental properties inspected every year for insurance purposes. He said there were no signs before the ceiling collapse that the Shaffer Street roof was leaking.

What tenants need to know

Tenants can also take action when it comes to maintenance issues.

“If they do see any kind of issue, if they think there’s a problem … I would like them to call our office,” Riggs said.

Not many tenants do this. “I wish we would get more of those,” he said. “We don’t get enough of them.”

One reason why may be that many, if not most, of the tenants in Athens are students with little experience as renters.

“A lot of times a new tenant won’t know what their rights are,” Riggs said, “and they just kind of put up with that sink that won’t drain, the faucet that’s leaking, whatever it is … and they don’t know to contact their landlord or contact us.”

Eckles suggested that tenants also may be reluctant to complain. Athens has a shortage of affordable housing, he said, and tenants might worry that complaining could get them evicted and unable to find another place to live.

“The best thing we can do is create a policy environment where tenants feel comfortable in documenting and reporting defects in their rental property,” Eckles said. But they need options too, he said, in case a landlord refuses to fix a problem or retaliates in some way for complaining that forces them to move. “It also requires that there be safe and affordable rental housing available that they can move into.”

One option tenants have if their landlord refuses to address a problem is to stop sending the rent payment to the landlord and instead pay it into an escrow account. This is done through the courts, and it creates a process in which a judge will determine what the landlord needs to do to get the rent money.

A common mistake tenants make is to stop paying the rent altogether. If they do this, the landlord can evict them and they have no recourse. But if they use the escrow option, it puts financial pressure on the landlord to resolve the problem.

Solveig Spjeldnes, an Athens City Council member, said the city is planning to implement a new policy under which if a tenant puts the rent in escrow this will automatically trigger a new inspection of the rental.

“Therefore, if there’s really been problems, code is right on top of it and can tell them, you need to fix this,” she said.

A pattern of failed inspections

The rental where the ceiling collapsed is at 79½ Shafer St. and is owned by Joe Krause, a longtime Athens landlord who has an office on Court Street under the name Krause Property Rentals.

That rental failed its inspection on June 8, but that had nothing to do with the ceiling, Riggs said. The rental was reinspected on July 26, nine days before part of the ceiling in a bedroom collapsed.

It’s unknown whether there were any signs of an imminent collapse on that day, Riggs said. When code officers do reinspections, they’re usually just rechecking the things that failed the first time and not looking around for new problems.

Krause told code enforcement the ceiling collapse resulted from damage to a rubber roof membrane caused by a dog owned by an upstairs tenant.

Code enforcement was not able to inspect the roof to confirm this. Riggs said when he and a senior inspector went to the rental after the collapse was reported, the roof had already been covered with a tarp to prevent more leaking until it could be repaired. The roofing material has since been replaced.

Krause’s rentals have failed many inspections over the years, according to copies of inspection reports acquired by United Athens County Tenants.

The vast majority of these failed inspections were for the same three things: smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors that needed to be installed or replaced and fire extinguishers that needed their annual recertification.

Krause is not alone. Every year more than a third of all the rental units inspected in Athens fail, mostly because of smoke alarms, carbon monoxide detectors and fire extinguishers.

Each failure triggers a reinspection, stretching the code enforcement officers even thinner.

The annual inspections are scheduled in advance and landlords know what is on the inspection checklist.

This raises the question of why there are so many failures for things that seem easy enough to check before the inspection.

Rittenhouse, Krause’s lawyer, said that when it comes to smoke detectors and fire extinguishers, it’s “a common problem that tenants and their guests remove these.”

“Despite that problem,” he said, “my client has always replaced them upon receiving notice that smoke detectors or fire extinguishers were missing or in need of service.”

Knowing this is a common problem, and that it’s going to get flagged in an inspection, landlords could check before the code officer arrives to make sure these things are in place and in working order.

One reason so many do not, resulting in time-consuming reinspections, may be that there is no penalty for failing inspections year after year for the same reasons.

“I don’t have anything … that can fine them for multiple failures of the same thing over and over again,” Riggs said. “That doesn’t exist in the current code.”

The result is the inspection itself ends up being the reminder about basic things that need to be done, which then get checked off on the reinspection. Riggs would prefer that landlords be more proactive.

“Are we the babysitters for the landlords?” he said. “That really shouldn’t be something we should be doing. They know better than that.”

Consequences are limited

Council member Spjeldnes, whose ward includes the Shafer Street rental, said that after she learned about the roof collapse, she decided to check the place out for herself.

“So I drove around and stopped at the place and it looks bad,” she said. “I mean aside from the roof, it looks like it’s been not maintained properly for a very long time, was my impression.”

“It’s not a place I would feel comfortable having my kids or my students live in, so I was concerned.”

Spjeldnes said she’s concerned overall about the quality of rental housing in Athens and the relationships between tenants and landlords.

But outside the annual code inspections, there’s not much the city can do to address these concerns, at least not under the current regulatory framework.

The city could deny rental permits to landlords who are a significant problem, but Spjeldnes said that at least in recent history, no landlord has lost their permit.

“Why that is, I can’t say,” she said. “But my guess is that there are some that maybe might have deserved to lose their rental permit option.”

The bottom line, she said, is “if there are no consequences to bad behavior, it never changes.”