Goshen News, Goshen, IN

March 2, 2010

Writing on the wall for vacant homes?

By Roger Schneider

GOSHEN, Ind — Mayor Allan Kauffman wanted the City Council’s input before toughening up home inspections. He got Monday night when council members told him to put his policy proposal in writing.

Kauffman explained that while the city’s Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance allows for inside inspections of homes in some instances, that power has rarely been used.

He is proposing city inspectors make more use of inside inspections to try and make landlords and private owners fix long-time vacant rental properties. He said the ordinance requires houses be habitable, even if they are vacant.

The policy could require an inspection of the interior if a house has been vacant for three years, Kauffman said. The purpose would be to determine whether or not the house is still habitable.

Several landlords said Monday that they generally don’t like that idea.

Dan Brouillette said he and his wife own 90 rental units, most of which are single-family homes. He suggested Kauffman’s proposal came about because of a personal grudge against another Goshen landlord, Ron Davidhizar.

“A personal vendetta against one person,” Brouillette said, “is going to affect a lot of people.”

He said he knows that Davidhizar and city administrations have been involved in rental enforcement actions for years.

“I really respect Ron,” Brouillette said. “(He provides) housing for a lot of people who would litter the streets of this community.”

Brouillette explained the economics of owning rental property to the council, saying 30 tenants paying their rent on time for a year are needed to produce enough money to put a $12,000 roof on one house.

“You can’t just point a finger and expect a person to have unlimited resources,” Brouillette said.

Davidhizar defended himself to the council, saying, “I fix up my property and I do it quite well.”

The Goshen landlord then read several letters he has received from city officials commending him for fixing up homes.

He said he uses materials that exceed the city code and he works to make his houses energy efficient.

Davidhizar said he cannot control the economy and many of his houses are vacant.

“People come to Goshen because of jobs,” he said. “If jobs are not here then (people) are not here. Then we have vacant homes.”

City resident Raymond Jorgeson believes more enforcement is needed.

“This is an issue of public health and safety,” he told the council.

Jorgeson said he knows of vacant homes where animals are living in them and he believes other rental homes in the city are substandard.

“I feel sorry for the people who live in there,” he told the council. “You wouldn’t want to live there.”

No vote was taken on the issue but council members Everett Thomas, Julia Gautsche and Jeremy Stutsman indicated before they signed-off on the idea they want to see the policy in writing. Councilman Thomas Stump said he was against having city inspectors enter private homes.

“I am curious if people know that this ordinance doesn’t just affect rentals, but also what they call home?” Stump asked.

City attorney Larry Barkas said city inspectors have entered private homes before, but it has been rare. One example he gave was when city inspectors believed a furnace posed a serious risk of exploding.

“We have to demonstrate that we believe the house is unsafe,” Barkas said.

Stump said he was concerned about expanding the powers of the city government.

“That’s the way government works,” he said. “You get your foot in the door and pretty soon you are knocking the house down.”

Gautsche responded, saying the number one issue when she attends neighborhood meetings is vacant and abandoned houses.

“If a vacant house is uninhabitable, then it won’t be rented,” she said.

Stutsman, who renovates and rents properties, said this is something the council should give more thought to and move ahead cautiously.

Thomas asked the mayor, why, if he has had the authority to enforce the ordinance more rigidly, he needed to get the council involved.

“It seems like a really odd thing to do for the council,” Thomas said.

Kauffman used an analogy to explain, saying if police enforced all the speeding laws to the letter, the public may not support them for long.