Burlington's Code Enforcers Have Your Landlord's Number
Foil-covered smoke alarms. Smashed toilet bowls. Electrical wiring running up the outside of a building to an illegal residence. Bill Ward has seen it all as director of Burlington’s Code Enforcement Office.
The 48-year-old was a Queen City police lieutenant before he became the chief enforcer of the city’s rental housing standards. Walking the beat and coordinating cop coverage downtown perfectly prepared him for what he describes as a “very controversial” job that strives to balance public safety and free enterprise. “Conflict is inherent,” he notes.
In many ways, Burlington can be seen as a landlord’s dream town, and the number of rental units — which account for more than half the total of 17,000 households — supports that theory. A reliable supply of college students combined with a shortage of housing for year-round residents results in a vacancy rate typically less than 2 percent — among the lowest in New England. It also means landlords can charge $750 or more per bedroom in apartments that won’t be featured in Martha Stewart Living. The less they spend improving their properties, the more profit they make.
But Ward’s office strives to ensure that every rental unit in Burlington meets minimum standards of safety and comfort — by inspecting them on a regular basis. Doing so can literally be a matter of life or death. An unsafe heating unit, for example, may emit deadly carbon monoxide fumes — which may go undetected if the mandatory CO alarm isn’t working.
Mold is a less dramatic but equally serious health hazard, and if a landlord fails to get rid of it, the department will declare the affected unit “unfit for human habitation.” Live electrical wires dangling from a ceiling generate the same response — which is what happened last month at a North Williams Street apartment owned by local pasta pasha Rick Bove. Ward’s team decreed that place uninhabitable on July 15.
Back in the early ’90s, when Burlington landlord Stu McGowan started buying and rehabbing residential buildings, the city didn’t have a housing-code-enforcement office; the Department of Public Works carried out intermittent inspections. “There was almost no oversight of landlords in the Old North End,” McGowan recalls, noting, “a lot of my friends were living in really substandard apartments.
“I’ve seen the worst of it,” he adds.
When Ward took over the code enforcement office in 2010, he found that 1535 of Burlington’s units were being inspected each year — nowhere close to the number needed to ensure compliance with a city ordinance requiring that every rented residence in Burlington be inspected every three years. Ward got the city’s five housing inspectors up to speed and in sync with the desired timetable: Inspection rates have doubled in the last three years.
Inspecting all 9500 apartments on a three-year cycle means there must be at least 60 new inspections a week, in addition to follow-up visits to properties where violations have been detected. When a landlord refuses to allow a city inspector into a building, Ward’s department obtains a search warrant through the city attorney’s office.
Morale has greatly improved in the code enforcement department over the past couple of years, according to Ward. He cites a 2011 letter signed by every member of the department’s 10-person staff thanking then-mayor Bob Kiss for appointing him as their leader.
On Ward’s watch, the code enforcement office has also embraced SeeClickFix, a national crowd-sourcing app that enables locals to post photos and make comments about unsightly scenes outside homes, such as garbage on greenbelts and cars on lawns and blocking sidewalks. As of August 18, Burlington was ranked No. 14 among some 150 cities measured for efficiency of responses to SeeClickFix complaints.
Timely inspections and stricter enforcement of the housing code have enabled the department to generate increased revenues in fines and fees. As a result, Ward points out, the city has had to spend about $200,000 less than had been budgeted for his department during the past two fiscal years.
Those additional revenues have come from the pockets of negligent landlords, who, Ward says, account for a small minority of the city’s rental property owners.
The short list of problem landlords includes Bove, whose family owns numerous units that have been cited for violations. At his Pearl Street restaurant, Bove would only say, “You can write whatever you like. It doesn’t much matter to me.”
The conditions in some Bove-owned buildings do matter to his tenants, however. A woman who lives at 8 North Williams Street recently pointed out several small problems in her own apartment and then led the way to a ground-floor unit that Ward’s office had recently decreed unfit for human habitation due to a caved-in bathroom ceiling, an unusable bathtub and those dangling electrical wires. In addition, the dingy hallway adjoining the sealed apartment had a gouge in its ceiling.
A multi-tenant building at 234 College Street owned by Joe Handy’s Sisters and Brothers Investment Group was recently ticketed by Ward’s office for failure to have its heating system inspected and serviced. An apartment in that same building has earned Handy three other recent tickets, each for $75, due to water damage from a leaky roof left unrepaired.
A unit in another Handy property, at 25-27 South Willard Street, has been posted as unfit for human habitation due to flood damage. Over the past four years, that building has inspired 22 protests about the trash out front, which qualifies it as Burlington’s leading source of complaints during that period in a city database reporting system.
“Whenever there’s a problem, we fix it,” Handy said on Tuesday, noting that the “unfit” apartment is in the process of being repaired. Garbage left outside his buildings is removed on a daily basis, he added.
The University of Vermont is included on a list of landlords that have had to pay the largest fees for reinspections of rental properties where code violations were not corrected in a timely manner. If a problem is found to be unresolved for more than 30 days, the city charges a reinspection fee of $60. A second reinspection that shows still-unaddressed violations carries a fee of $100. The third and every subsequent reinspection costs the landlord $200. UVM was assessed $360 in fees over the past 18 months for each of two properties it owns on South Prospect Street.
How does Ward’s doggedness go over with the city’s landlords? Most of them actually have kind words for the man who grabs code violators by the leg and does not let go until they obey the city’s ordinance. Stuart Bennett, head of the Vermont Apartment Owners Association, rates him as “realistic, balanced, flexible, tolerant — communicates well.”
Even Chris Khamnei — Ward’s biggest nemesis — concedes he’s “very diligent, very organized, a hard worker.”
Ward isn’t only an outstanding code enforcer, says McGowan; he was “one of the best police officers I’ve ever seen.” The landlord who owns about 80 apartments in vibrantly colored buildings throughout the Old North End got to know Ward in the 1990s, when he was the cop on call for the H.O. Wheeler school. McGowan headed the school’s parent-teacher organization. “The thing about Bill was, he never lost his cool,” McGowan says.
Ward says his police work taught him the importance of retaining a professional demeanor when provoked. And that happened frequently enough, Ward relates, that he started looking forward to retirement. He collects a yearly pension of $44,428 from the police job, in addition to a $72,867 salary for the code enforcement gig.
The code enforcement office is costing taxpayers $936,412 this fiscal year. Collecting the $75 annual rental registration fee on the rental properties in the city generates $652,212. Ward’s office brings in additional revenues through penalties it collects in its role as enforcer of zoning regulations.
But landlords and taxpayers today are getting “better value for their money,” says Steve Offenhartz, owner of about 70 rental units scattered around Burlington. “We used to have little or no interaction with code enforcement,” says Offenhartz, a landlord with 18 years’ experience. “Now it’s much more frequent.”
And that’s essential, Offenhartz adds, because inspections sometimes uncover life-threatening violations in housing as old as Burlington’s. “The code really isn’t that stringent,” Offenhartz adds. “It’s about things you’d want to do anyway.”
McGowan agrees, noting, “It’s called a minimum housing code for a reason.” Ward enforces basic standards intended to protect the health and safety of tenants, McGowan says.
For all his zeal in pursuing recalcitrant property owners, Ward admits that “being a landlord is a hard job.” The psychological pressures alone can be acute, notes Gene Richards, owner of about 20 Burlington units he rents exclusively to students.
“My biggest fear is loss of life,” says Richards, who also owns a home mortgage brokerage and serves as aviation director at Burlington International Airport. “I cringe every time I hear fire engine sirens.
“We clear up any problems right away,” the landlord says, citing an electronic complaint system he has established for tenants. An email or a text message to Richards’ property management office generates a quick response along with a prompt fix of whatever’s in need of repair, he says. In the course of 90-minute interviews he conducts with prospective renters, Richards says he acquaints them with their rights under the city’s housing ordinance. “We want tenants who are compatible with their neighbors and with the neighborhood,” Richards explains.
Richards is among the “more than 90 percent” of Burlington landlords who are doing “an excellent job” of keeping their properties up to code, Ward comments. And he notes that violations found in apartments are not necessarily the fault of the property owner. Some tenants do cause problems, Ward acknowledges. He is somewhat sympathetic to the complaint that the Burlington housing ordinance makes it very difficult for a landlord to evict a tenant, regardless of the tenant’s behavior.
“It’s hard but not impossible,” Ward says. Plus, there are steps short of attempted eviction that can and should be taken to address code violations caused by a tenant, he adds. “You have to communicate with the tenant your concern that conditions are unacceptable and that you’ll be working with code enforcement to make sure the property is brought into compliance and maintained that way.”
In general, Ward insists, “It’s poor property management that causes problems. When tenants see a building is well maintained, it’s more likely to stay that way.
“It’s true that anyone can have a bad tenant,” he continues, “but if a property owner has bad tenants every year, that says more about the landlord than about the renter.”
Bennett, the apartment owners’ representative, doesn’t disagree with Ward’s view. But he does wonder what, exactly, the code keeper has in mind when he learns Ward wants to insert the words “good workmanship” into the law. Ward plans to ask the city council to approve an amendment stipulating that repairs on rental properties must be of high quality. “We don’t want it to just be duct-taped and painted over,” Ward says.
While cautioning that he has not spoken to Ward about this proposal, Bennett suggests, “That can be a pretty subjective standard.”
Ward sees it as a matter of equity. “If a property owner doesn’t allow a poor fix in their own house,” he says, “they shouldn’t allow it in a tenant’s house, either.”
Twenty-three years of police work served Bill Ward well last Friday afternoon when he posted a “stop work” order on a building owned by Chris Khamnei — one of Burlington’s most problematic landlords.
With a police officer in tow, the head of code enforcement informed Khamnei his work violated the city zoning ordinance; Khamnei said he had a zoning permit to create a narrow, two-car parking area alongside the building he owns.
The two argued face-to-face for 15 minutes as the cop stood by mutely. Neither antagonist lost his cool, though Ward has documentation of previous run-ins with an overheated Khamnei. The Hill Section resident, 47, has a history of hostility toward Ward’s finding of code violations in some of the 50 rental units Khamnei owns in Burlington.
“Bill you are an Asshole,” he wrote in an April 2 email message to Ward. “Take your embarrassing and harassing signs off my building.”
Khamnei was referring to his property at 225/227 St. Paul Street, on which Ward had posted a notice declaring it “unfit for human habitation.” The building is zoned for only commercial use, but Ward said he saw evidence of residential tenants, including a propane barbecue grill on the roof — which is a violation of a code provision requiring grills to be at least 10 feet away from a building.
Khamnei had written to Ward earlier that same day: “The grill is off the roof … I’m so done with this bullshit. Have a nice day Bill.”
Yet the landlord sent a message the next day apologizing for his comments. Despite his belligerence and record of repeated code violations, Khamnei projects a certain charm: that of the rebel who is unafraid to stand up to authority figures he believes have wronged him. “I don’t back down,” he declared. “I stand up for what I know is right.
“I am not a dummy,” Khamnei added, noting that he taught electrical engineering for 17 years at the University of Vermont.
“They make me out to be Public Enemy No. 1. But before Bill Ward took over, I was considered one of the best landlords in Burlington,” Khamnei said as he waited in front of 28 Pine Street on Friday for Ward and the police to arrive. “He’s ramped up code enforcement to the point where it’s way too powerful.”
The original print version of this article was headlined "Fix It, Man."