Our View: Time for code crackdown
June 22, 2008
Steamboat Springs — If any good is to come from the death of Steamboat Springs resident David Engle, city officials must follow through on vows made Friday to review code enforcement priorities and thoroughly inventory Steamboat’s stock of secondary residential units.
Engle died of smoke inhalation June 15 in his Old Town apartment. Engle apparently was making french fries on his gas stove when he fell asleep, and a grease fire subsequently ignited. Engle’s dog also died.
A fire investigation revealed the one-bedroom residence had no smoke detectors. City and county officials also say the unit, a converted garage apartment, is not registered as a legal residential dwelling. City codes adopted in 2001 require all secondary units – those located on the same lots as principal dwelling units – to be registered and subjected to code review.
It’s safe to say the apartment at 705 Pine St. isn’t the only such illegal residence in city limits.
Planning and Community Development Director Tom Leeson says there are between 50 and 75 registered secondary units in the city. He suggests there are only a few illegal units, and we hope he’s right. But there is no accurate city housing inventory to back up that assertion.
Compounding the issue is the city’s history of ignoring such issues, apparently for reasons including the ability of secondary residential units to contribute to the stock of affordable rental housing for Steamboat’s workforce.
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“Sometimes in a community like this, when you do have housing issues, I think that sometimes there’s a tendency to allow things to occur, or at least we turn the other cheek sometimes in not knowing about it,” City Council President Loui Antonucci said.
His candor makes clear the approach previously and currently adopted by the city toward such issues. It also clarifies the change in priorities needed if Engle’s untimely death is to be used to prevent future tragedies.
The fact is a crackdown on illegal secondary units won’t affect the ability of such units to provide needed affordable housing. It costs only $50 for a property owner to register a secondary unit, and Leeson said the requirements are “relatively easy to meet.” Applications can be processed in just a few days.
The city should encourage all property owners who have secondary units to immediately register them with the city, with no penalties for existing units that have been illegal up to this point. More important than punishing these property owners is ensuring their units are inventoried and up to code, including having working smoke detectors.
As City Council member Cari Hermacinski said Friday, “The benefit is saving a life. Protecting people’s health and safety is the basic function of government.”
After a grace period to be determined by the city, code enforcement officers should actively search for unregistered secondary units and issue citations to those property owners.
Quite simply, there is no excuse for property owners who rent out their secondary units to not ensure they are providing basic life-safety measures for tenants. Legal and moral obligations are more than enough reason for such action. And for property owners who ignore the laws, the city should be ready and willing to enforce its own regulations.
David Engle died in a Steamboat Springs apartment that wasn’t up to code. We hope his death will be used to make Steamboat safer for all residents.