Code enforcement: A dirty job, but somebody's got to do it

Many Bremerton residents are affected by lousy landlords — from tenants who live in mold infested, ill-maintained shacks, to homeowners who can’t sell their houses because their next-door neighbor’s yard contains a mound of reeking trash.

Some apartment complexes or houses have sewage leaking out of broken drainfields into watersheds, according to Jeanni Johnson, who enforces housing codes for the city.

Since Johnson began working three years ago on an especially hard-hit area in Bremerton, Anderson Cove, she has seen it all.

Once she walked into a duplex where the mold grew one inch thick on the walls and in the corners. She took photographs of little holes where rats came in and out.

Another time a landlord repaired a house from fire damage, but Johnson called the job “a cover-up at best.” The burn marks were still there, and the smell of smoke was pungent. Additionally, the landlord threatened the tenant if she told anyone.

“The landlord told her ‘if you report this to the health department I am going to evict you,” Johnson said.

Absentee or careless landlords are one of the reasons there is such a problem with drug labs in the area, Johnson contends.

“Drugs? You want to know stories? I’ve got them,” she said.

She has looked down gun barrels of drug leaders holed up in houses landlords haven’t bothered to check out.

In a survey presented to the City Council last Tuesday July 16, Mayor Cary Bozeman asked 400 Bremerton residents what they believed was the most important problem facing the city is today. Although many people said economic redevelopment, several people said irresponsible or absentee landlords.

Mayor Bozeman agrees.

“My sense is there is a huge problem,” he said.

Adds Johnson, “Residents have a legitimate gripe, they really do.”

Janet Lunceford is Johnson’s partner in code enforcement. She has fielded complaints for 15 years.

The number of complaints have steadily risen over her tenure, Lunceford said, and last year alone she received 900 calls about code violations. She is getting more calls, she said, because people are getting fed up and because they are figuring out who they can call.

Some landlords know how bad their places are, she said.

“We talked to one of our landlords once and asked him if he would live in any of his properties, and he said ‘Hell no!’ ” Lunceford said.

Johnson says many landlords are absentee — residing out of the city limits in another state.

Additionally, the city is “in the middle ages as far as zoning is concerned,” said Johnson.

Investigating a complaint takes weeks or months, which Johnson said is too long. Also, most notices are sent to landlords by mail, instead of by phone or e-mail. And each notice gets a separate file, so a landlord who has the same problem on numerous properties isn’t charged accordingly.

However, Lunceford says Bremerton’s housing problem is not only the fault of landlords, but also renters.

“People want to be able to do anything they want on their property but sometimes that affects the community adversely,” Lunceford said.

She has walked into houses where tenants have let their dogs defecate all over the floor and she could barely stand the smell.

Some people pile trash in the yard, inviting rodents. Other tenants start car repair business in the front yard, which Lanceford says causes a health hazard and an eyesore.

Johnson complains that many tenants don’t control their animals. She has had to run from pit bulls and other animals while on the job.

“I fought this chicken like you would not believe,” she said. It popped out from a neighbor’s yard and started attacking her. Turns out it was part of an illegal cock-fighting ring, she said.

Johnson cannot say things are getting better on Bremerton’s streets, but she has noted a more agressive spirit in city leadership. The mayor and city attorney are soliciting ideas about how to clean up the housing mess.

Concerned residents are sharing their ideas, and city officials are acknowledging the facts: “Right now we have no good way of effectively enforcing the codes and getting landlords and citizens to clean up their property,” said Roger Lubovich, city attorney.

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