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Blog posts for the weekly #TopekaTweetALongs. Follow @cityoftopeka on Twitter if you want the live action coverage. Storify.com/cityoftopeka for collection of tweets.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Property maintenance and mental health

TL;DR Property code enforcement involves more patience, compassion and understanding than you can imagine. Topeka's seven code inspectors handle 20,000 properties -- each.

Check out the #topekatweetalong compiled here.


Dennis Boyles
Driving around Hi-Crest with property maintenance code inspector Dennis Boyles is a trip.

Yes, he sees the property code violations -- after 18 years in the business, that's second nature. And he intentionally takes routes through his area (mostly central Topeka and Hi-Crest East of Adams) so he can be proactive about code enforcement.

But having lived in Topeka almost 63 years, Boyles knows the stories behind what he sees, too.

Like the house that has people living it with no utilities. Or the house, vacant according to records, that is home to a homeless man. Boyles cited the home, and the man cleaned it up.

Some people see a tent with random objects throughout the lawn. Boyles sees James, who has become a staple in the neighborhood by mowing lawns for extra money. He once gave James $5 to get gas for the lawn mower. Driving by later, James, mowing a lawn, gave Boyles a thumbs up.

As the lead field inspector, Boyles knows his trade well. Some of it is what you would expect: Citing homes for overgrown weeds or flaking paint or leaky roofs. He went into some detail about the bad perception of the code enforcement department, explaining, like property maintenance manager Mike Haugen did last week in an interview with The Topeka Capital-Journal, that enforcement is a process. It has to go through proper notification and legal actions before action can be taken sometimes. Some graffiti on a home in Hi-Crest, for example, could take 30 to 45 days to fix, if they can't reach the owner.

Graffiti on a home in Hi-Crest
But there's another side I saw Wednesday I wasn't expecting.

Our first two stops were to visit tenants who wanted to report their landlords for neglect. The first was a home for patients of Valeo Behavioral Health Care. The second was a friend of the first, who has come on hard times. Both had a lot of concerns, and a lot to say -- and many problems Boyles couldn't help them with.

But he never said that. He patiently listened, in his "Father John" pose, offering to connect them to other resources, showing interest and concern about what they were saying and promising to follow up with them and their landlords. Quite a bit of his job as a property code inspector, he said, involves social work and mental health issues.


Father John pose


"To do this job, you have to have a sense of humor and be patient," Boyles said. "That last one came with age." (Boyles cracks a lot of jokes about his age, 63.)

Cases like the first we saw today, when seven people served by Valeo are living in a home that could be condemned, bother Boyles. Enforcing property maintenance code could mean those people lose their homes.

"I'm not sure if we're doing a service or disservice" in those cases, he said.

Boyles describes two camps of people: Those who flat-out refuse to comply with the property maintenance code, and those who want to, but can't.

He doesn't like not being able to help people in that second camp. To illustrate: When you cite people, oftentimes you don't know if, for example, the person has a serious medical issue. In many cases, if that person had money to pay the court fine, they would have used it to pay someone to mow the lawn.

"We just don't have the resources," he said. Each of the seven code inspectors oversees 20,000 properties, he said.
Boyles out in the field. Takes 62 touches to enter a report. Yes, the truck is stopped.

The City of Topeka is working on a couple of volunteer programs to help with cases just like that. One is the Rock the Block initiative with Highland Park. It kicks off with a carnival and resource fair Saturday, but essentially is a volunteer opportunity for the Highland Park High School students to clean up blocks in their neighborhoods a couple of days each month. The other program, which is targeted toward people who want to volunteer in Topeka generally, still is in the works. Trust: When it's time to roll it out, there will be announcements about it and ways to sign up.

This barely touches the surface of what Boyles showed me today. If you want to see the rest, check out a compilation of the tweets.



Next week, I'm going around with the vactor truck crew. You might remember them from the Sewer TV edition, when they cleared tree roots from a sewer pipe. I'm told it will be an adventure.


8 comments:

  1. And then their are the complaints that never get looked at, like my friend that lives in apartment with that old cloth and tar wiring that has circuit's that overload even with one thing is plugged in, like the air conditioner that only works for a few hours and the windows that have no screens and or won't open., leaking toilet that's rotting the floor. Maybe the city needs to hire more people for the job so the emails and phone messages actually get an answer and response/action. While I understand the need to keep weeds and lawns mowed or the removal of some junk causing an eye sore, possible for and other more serious health/injury or potential death hazards should get prioritized near the top of the inspection lists

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  3. I really enjoy these bits of info and insight into the workings of the city. I would love to spend a day with Dennis

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  4. Thanks for share this kind of master tips about Property Maintenance,building maintenance contractors your website is very great for me. Thanks

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  6. It must be incredibly taxing for code enforcers to keep up with all of the new laws coming on the books and with the down economy, all the drifters and homeless who are occupying foreclosed properties. I guess a down economy for the rest of the world is an up economy for people in your line of work. It looks too stressful for me, to be honest!

    Darryl Housand @ Haaker

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