CSAO: Planning and Development Committee - March 14, 2014 - H.B. No. 5505

Planning and Development Committee - March 14, 2014 - H.B. No. 5505

TESTIMONY OF THE DIVISION OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE

IN SUPPORT OF:

H.B. NO. 5505: AN ACT CONCERNING A STUDY OF A STATE-WIDE PROPERTY MAINTENANCE CODE

JOINT COMMITTEE ON PLANNING AND DEVELOPMENT
March 14, 2014

The Division of Criminal Justice respectfully recommends the Committee’s JOINT FAVORABLE SUBSTITUTE REPORT for H.B. No. 5505, An Act Concerning a Study of a State-wide Property Maintenance Code.

The Division has discussed this legislation with other interested parties who strongly support the need for the study referenced in H.B. No. 5505. The revision we are requesting as a JOINT FAVORABLE SUBSTITUTE REPORT is to have the Division of Criminal Justice through the Office of the Chief State’s Attorney responsible for convening the task force instead of the dual assignment to the Codes and Standards Committee, in consultation with the State Building Inspector, as proposed in the current language. It would be our intention to have the task force overseen by the Supervisory Assistant State’s Attorney for Housing Matters, and to have all interested and appropriate parties attend and participate. The Division respectfully submits the following proposed substitute language:

The Chief State’s Attorney or his designee shall convene a task force which shall select a nationally recognized model property maintenance code and make recommendations as to which changes, if any, are necessary to adapt such code to the state. Not later than January 15, 2015, said task force shall submit its recommendations in accordance with the provisions of section 11-4a of the general statutes to the joint standing committees of the General Assembly having cognizance of matters relating to local governments, public health and public safety.

The Division of Criminal Justice offers this substitute language recognizing that there is a pressing need for the underlying study: Municipal blight stemming from lack of maintenance of existing structures and premises. The elimination of blight through property maintenance is integral to public safety and community well-being. As such, and on its own initiative, the Division in 2008 invited a wide range of parties to discuss the possible adoption of a state housing or property maintenance code for Connecticut. Based on an overwhelming response, we convened an unofficial task force of approximately fifty people to discuss the same question, partnering with local officials and several state agencies including but not limited to the Department of Public Health, the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection (then the Department of Public Safety), Office of the State Building Inspector and of the State Fire Marshal (now both within the Department of Administrative Services), the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (then the Department of Environmental Protection), the Office of the Attorney General and more, as well as each of our housing or building safety code organizations (Connecticut Fire Marshals Association, Connecticut Building Officials Association, Connecticut Housing Code Enforcement Officials Association, Connecticut Directors of Health, Connecticut Environmental Health Association, Connecticut Association of Zoning Enforcement Officials and others),  along with private parties including several landlord and tenant organizations, builders, remodelers and Realtors. We offered an open door for interested and involved parties on the issue and remained in session for more than a year and half. At the end of that time, we produced a draft state property maintenance code that was approved by the unofficial task force by majority consensus. Although follow-up meetings were held to consider the proposed code by our Division and other interested and supportive state agencies, budget constraints since 2008 stalled any serious consideration until now.

The Division is more than willing to convene a similar task force to conduct an official study through this proposed substitute language. The Division is fully involved and sees the continued problems of blight, substandard housing and the difficulties these problems present for our state, its people and business. Particularly in areas where blight is visible to the public eye, we find that crime and blight commonly ally, firmly nestled in neglected, deteriorated structures, consuming previously healthy and productive communities like a growing disease, pervasively destructive in nature. Theories such as “Broken Windows” by sociologists Wilson and Kelling have long recognized that in such areas, crime fighting by police is most necessary, yet not enough to combat the spread of blight. Each broken window left uncorrected over time demonstrates that the community and its government do not mind the broken window, thereby making further broken windows acceptable, and even normal.1

Untended properties become fair game for plunder, leave neighbors in an environment repressed with disorder, marked with criminal behavior and unsafe conditions and spoiled with financial loss, frustration and fear. Blight exists in every municipality in our state, although the disadvantaged areas and citizens take the brunt of the problem as over time they have lost their community’s control of these issues and generally lack the resources to fight blight or influence neighbors to correct and maintain their properties. Some blighted areas are expansive and require consistent municipal enforcement to maintain them at a safe and habitable level. Others are centered on a single structure left abandoned and unmaintained amidst a thriving residential or commercial neighborhood; albeit any size from a single family home deserted by foreclosure to a vacant store front left to vandalism or an industrial plant out of use. In our great state, all persons enjoy a right to an equal opportunity for safe and healthy housing and community and require our help to achieve it.

The State of Connecticut lacks a statewide property maintenance code applicable to existing structures and premises, which if adopted, would uniformly require compliance with reasonable minimal standards of health and safety in our communities. Although we do some of this now through existing codes, they are insufficient for this problem. The state; has in place three main statewide codes to protect persons and property: the Fire (Safety and Prevention) Code, the State Building Code and the Public Health Code. Although the fire safety code pertains to existing structures, it is only in a specified and limited capacity. The complaint subject matter must constitute a fire violation for it to apply. Although critical to the life safety of building inhabitants and users, as well as first responders, fire codes are not very useful in the fight against general blight conditions. The State Building Code has provisions that can apply to existing structures, but only when the building official has deemed the structure or a portion of it “unsafe,” or in danger of failure or collapse; conditions that are usually a result of long-term neglect, which evolved unchecked into a serious and potentially life-threatening emergency that the municipality is responsible to respond to for public safety. Therefore, typical maintenance issues most familiar to blight complaints, such as broken windows, garbage or deteriorated structures, do not generally get addressed in the building code. The Public Health Code can address conditions of nuisance at or about dilapidated, deteriorated structures when they rise to the level of affecting the public health, or violate a health statute squarely, but do so in limited provisions with somewhat insubstantial language that has proved difficult for courts, attorneys, code officials, landlords and tenants to discern and apply uniformly and fairly.

Besides these three statewide codes, municipal housing codes are found in a remarkable percentage of our communities. Where they exist, they are the main tool for the enforcement of minimal code standards in existing structures. The prevalence of these local codes, as well as blight ordinances where enacted pursuant to state law, shows the common need for a legal mechanism to address these heavy concerns. However, in the majority of our municipalities there is no local housing or blight code, which has resulted in a steady stream of citizen complaints from those communities to our office, saying that they receive no housing complaint help at all. Blight and housing violations are akin to each other and may be addressed together within a property maintenance code. In fact, wisely recognizing the effect of substandard housing and blight on their people’s health and safety, our larger municipalities not only enforce a local housing code but often staff a distinct housing inspection department to ensure compliance. With adequate staffing and support, these programs are highly effective to combat blight and protect the public safety. Indeed they give people a place to lodge a complaint and receive help on the housing and blight issues that affect their day-to-day health, ability to work and quality of life.

In sum, municipal blight and lack of property maintenance is a real and onerous threat to community health, prosperity and safety. Currently, the available municipal assistance on these common complaints varies staggeringly by geographical area resulting in the disparate treatment of people with the same kinds of blight and housing safety complaints. Adoption of a statewide property maintenance code will effectively raise the level of well-being of our state by requiring a standard, not currently at law, for a minimum of decent, safe and sanitary community living throughout. It will eliminate the unequal application of health and safety protections for our people and the confusion of property owners, tenants, Realtors, attorneys and courts alike, in determining these standards. However, what particular provisions we should adopt to allow for effective enforcement will require a formidable study, which we offer to take charge of per the proposed substitute language herein.

In conclusion, the Division of Criminal Justice respectfully requests the Committee’s JOINT FAVORABLE SUBSTITUTE REPORT for H.B. No. 5505. The Division expresses its appreciation for this opportunity to address the Committee and would be happy to provide any additional information you might require or to answer any questions you might have.

1 Wilson, James Q. and George I. Kelling, Broken Windows. The Atlantic Online (March 1982).



Content Last Modified on 3/14/2014 12:48:00 PM