Higher fines for repeat offenders should reel in problematic Colorado Springs landlords, city staff says

By: Conrad Swanson

As Colorado Springs’ cash-strapped code enforcement staff works to ensure decent housing for renters, it has found that about half of its housing cases and follow-up inspections are with about 3 percent of rental property owners.

Now the City Council is considering new laws and higher fees for those few problematic landlords.

“This is a long time in coming … for these vulnerable people to have some kind of relief,” Councilwoman Yolanda Avila said Monday at the council’s work session.

The proposed changes aren’t intended to target one landlord, said Mitch Hammes, the city’s neighborhood services manager and head of housing code enforcement.

But among that 3 percent – eight of 243 property owners – one clearly stands out.

Between June 27 and Oct. 31 last year, code enforcement opened 541 cases, 259 of which belonged to the eight property owners at issue, Hammes said.

But 198 of those 259 cases concern properties owned by one person. By comparison, the second-highest ranking property owner was responsible for 17 cases.

Neither Hammes nor city spokeswoman Kim Melchor would say who the biggest offender is, and Hammes noted that the quantity of cases does not necessarily equal severity.

But as The Gazette reported in November, most of the city’s housing cases and code violations are because of property owner Terry Ragan.

Residents of Ragan’s apartments, mostly sprinkled through the city’s southeast side, have been plagued by cockroaches, leaky pipes, bedbugs, mold, shootings, assaults and bogus tenant charges for decades.

The Gazette’s report followed on past investigations, showing that conditions in Ragan rentals have either stagnated or worsened over the past 15 years.

Ragan’s response to the proposed ordinances mirrored his response to past articles: He declined to comment.

The very definitions of repeat and chronic offenders, coupled with a small, ineffective fee for follow-up investigations, has restricted code enforcement’s abilities, Hammes said.

If the council approves the new ordinances, the property owners will be tied to complaints and subsequent investigations, Hammes said.

Each unit in a building now is treated as an individual violation, which complicates building-wide problems such as bed bug or cockroach infestations.

The city doesn’t charge property owners for initial inspections or follow-visits made to ensure a violation is corrected. Every third and subsequent visit carries a $100 charge, though, Hammes said.

With such a minuscule fine, some landlords would rather pay the city than resolve a problem, Council President Richard Skorman said.

But by updating the definition of repeat and chronic offenders, those fees can more than double, Hammes said.

“Once you fail to make a correction twice in six months, or if we’ve issued you five notices within 12 months for any property you own, then you’re designated a repeat offender, and then the inspection fee goes up to $250,” Hammes said.

If a repeat offender holds that status for a year, the person then is designated a chronic offender, and the fee rises to $500, Hammes said.

Property owners can remove themselves from such lists by staying violation-free for a year, he said.

The updates aim to create a financial incentive for property owners to address tenant complaints before code enforcement is notified, Melchor said.

“It’s not a money grab by the city,” Melchor said. “It’s trying to change behavior.”

It’s an attempt to “make sure the housing stock that we do have for rental is quality,” Hammes said. “And when there is a problem, that it’s addressed properly.”

Along with the proposed changes comes an administrative tweak officially designating Peter Wysocki, head of the city’s planning department, as the city’s code enforcement administrator.

Another change would direct any violation appeals from property owners through Municipal Court rather than the city’s Planning Commission and City Council, Hammes said. Appeals are rare, but this move would ensure that they’re resolved in about 10 days rather than weeks.

The council will vote later this month on whether to approve the new ordinances, Hammes said.

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