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					H O U S I N G

A N D

D E V E L O P M E N T

R E P O R T E R

HDR
SECTION 8

CURRENT DEVELOPMENTS
In Housing, Community Development, Finance and Taxation

APRIL 2, 2001

Vol. 28, No. 48

IDEAS AND TRENDS
In an interview with HDR, Harris said there was a lot of anger and distrust on the part of landlords and that at least some of their feelings were justified. He encouraged his staff to ask why certain procedures were being used. “We had been doing some things only because they had been done since the dawn of time,” he said, “and we realized we didn’t have to do that.” The review resulted in many policy changes for the local Section 8 program, which currently has 1,045 vouchers. “We recommended some changes to the housing code and rewrote a lot of correspondence to get rid of officious languages and descriptions of what we were going to do to you if you didn’t comply,” he said. Customer Relations In the fall of 1998, the city council approved a Housing Services Department request for a program to strengthen customer relations. The initial effort was aimed at improving the Section 8 program, but it was so well received that the city approved a second phase in the summer of 1999 to achieve a community-wide consensus on a five-year strategic housing and community development plan. The city contracted with EnCompass, LLC, of Bethesda, Md., headed by LaVerne D. Webb. Her firm relies on the appreciative inquiry approach, a method that helps achieve management changes by encouraging stakeholders to engage in a dialogue about important issues so they can find a common ground. In Dubuque, a planning committee identified more than 220 key stakeholders in the housing community. Sixty interviewers were trained in the appreciative interview process and conducted interviews within three months. The interviewers came from the large group of Roman Catholic nuns who live and work in the Dubuque area. The city serves as regional headquarters for several religious orders, and many of the institutions in the city are Catholic.

Dubuque Reforms Administration of Voucher Programs With Help of Owners, Tenants, Local Groups
After landlords in Dubuque, Iowa, held a meeting with the city manager three years ago to complain about the Section 8 program, David Harris, manager of the Dubuque Housing Services Department, set the department on a new course, ordering his staff to examine all the department’s policies and procedures with the aim of making them more user-friendly for both landlords and tenants. At the suggestion of Harris, the city went beyond this internal review, hiring a consultant who helped gather opinions from the community about housing needs and using the results to foster policy changes. The consultant relied on a process called appreciative inquiry, which draws on concepts in sociology and psychology and emphasizes collaboration in solving problems facing communities and businesses. At the three-hour meeting in 1998, landlords complained about overly strict enforcement of the building code, which incorporates HUD housing quality standards (HQS). Even before the meeting, landlords had organized and began attending city council meetings to complain about the Section 8 program. Stories about landlord grievances appeared in the local news media.

Section 8 landlords complained about overly strict building code enforcement.
A common complaint was that rental units were failing property inspections due to peeling paint, and owners were generally unhappy with the treatment they received, complaining that the Section 8 staff was too bureaucratic and inflexible.

April 2, 2001

Roman Catholic nuns played important role in “appreciative interview” process to develop information on community housing needs.
Webb told HDR that she believes the participation by the nuns was important to the success of this effort. The religious orders had formed an intercongregational housing project to assess the housing needs of women and children, especially the homeless, and the group was invited to participate in the Section 8 customer service initiative. Webb said the addition of this religious group provided a wider perspective because its members were concerned about the entire community and they provided a powerful moral voice in Dubuque, whose population is about 85 percent Catholic. In February 1999, a summit conference was attended by 82 people who discussed the results of the interviews. The conference also studied data about the community and the possibilities for housing. Harris said the most important achievement of the conference was that it began a continuing dialogue which is institutionalized by three task forces on housing code enforcement that include all the stakeholders, including landlords and tenants. The task force meetings continue to be well-attended, said Harris, providing opportunity for landlords, neighborhood representatives, and city staff to informally discuss their concerns. The most important outcome of the task forces is improved communications, said Harris. Inspector Discretion Among the changes made by the housing services department, building inspectors were given more discretion writing up conditions in rental units. Previously, all conditions needing correction were cited as housing code violations. Since April 1999, inspectors have been allowed to note a condition as a “pass with comment,” allowing the owner to make repairs later while allowing tenants to move in. Of the 452 pass-with-comment notices in a nine-month period, 121 were corrected voluntarily. There was a reduction in the number of code violation notices from more than 13,600 in fiscal 1998 to about 10,000 in fiscal 2000. All building inspectors and their supervisors now meet weekly at the housing department offices to discuss situations encountered in the field. “Cases of the week” are highlighted as a means of sharing experiences and formulating standardized interpretations of code requirements. Also, an up-to-date interpretations manual is maintained and regularly reviewed.

Several interdepartmental groups were formed by the city to coordinate work and develop joint strategies on several fronts, including housing. Section 8 stakeholders were invited to attend these meetings as well. There are regular reviews of shared cases between the building department and the fire marshal’s office. Inspectors were given cell phones to improve communications with landlords, resulting in more efficient scheduling, fewer missed appointments, and improved access to inspectors by landlords. An afterhours and weekend phone contact system was also established. The city decided to make great use of the “grandfather clause,” which allows nonconforming conditions to pass inspection, provided they originally met code requirements and do not currently present a health or safety hazard to occupants. This policy has significantly reduced the time needed to process inspection reports, and the appeals board now meets every three to four months instead of monthly. In another change, the city developed an identification tag to assist owners in locating difficult-to-find code violations in areas such as basements and attics. Section 8 landlords are given additional time to perform repairs during winter months on such items as roofing shingles, window glazing, and cement work. In addition, landlords are no longer required to make appliance repairs that aren’t required by the building code. Under a new policy, Section 8 rents are pro-rated for the remaining days in a month rather than being charged from the first of the month, allowing landlords to receive rent as soon as a unit clears inspection. Tenant Communication Responding to landlord complaints that some tenants were not being held responsible for their behavior, city notices are now being sent directly to a tenant when a problem is caused by the tenant, such as improper storage of garbage. A printed flyer has been developed to be sent to all rental properties explaining the city policies concerning garbage storage and schedules for garbage pickups. A brochure was developed, also at the request of landlords, which describes the safe and legal use of extension cords for tenant households. A program was developed to provide direct services to tenants identified as poor housekeepers, providing these families with instruction in proper housekeeping practices. The city now has a policy of always contacting landlords before entering an apartment when responding to a tenant complaint, except when there is a health or safety hazard and the owner cannot be located. The city and landlords also are working

Building inspection system was revised to give owners more time to make repairs.

April 2, 2001

together to bring “problem landlords” into compliance with property and management standards. The city staff now routinely calls a landlord and sends informal letters as a first step before issuing orders and notices. Owners are routinely sent a notice when their unit passes inspection with a “thank you” card. Previously, landlords knew of a successful inspection only because the department stopped sending notices that a rental unit had not passed. The city also has adopted a practice of sending an exit letter to solicit information and comment when a landlord discontinues participation in the Section 8 program.

(For information, contact David Harris, 319-589-4239, or Laverne Webb, 410-745-3828.)

April 2, 2001


				
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