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Code enforcement system lined with red tape

Lucy Seale's next-door neighbor has been making her life miserable. The neighbor sends fat rats scurrying onto her property and an odor like a dead body drifting through her windows. When vagrants ran cords into Mrs. Seale's outdoor plugs to steal electricity, the neighbor stood by silently.

Mrs. Seale's neighbor is an empty, dilapidated house.

For more than a year, since a fire gutted the already decayed house, Mrs. Seale has watched the house sink further and further into disarray, becoming one of the most notorious illegal dumps in Tampa Heights.

On one recent day, the yard, bushes and crumbling steps to the wooden house were littered with paint cans, carpets, mattresses, a couch, tree trimmings, tires, cinder blocks and a porcelain toilet.

"Late at night I can hear the people dumping their trucks," said Mrs. Seale, who sometimes looks after as many as 14 grandchildren at her house on Gladys Street. "When the wind blows it smells like something dead blowing in the house. We went and even looked to see if a body was there. I know when the summer comes it's going to be really bad out there."

Mrs. Seale has complained to city officials about the house, as have other neighbors. After months of watching trash pile up beside the charred house, she thinks her complaints have been ignored.

But the house at 2707 Highland Ave. has been plodding through the city's code enforcement system. The owners, who live out of state, have ignored thousands of dollars of fines. The house likely will be foreclosed upon later this month and eventually torn down, city officials said.

While the case is being resolved through legal channels, the neighbors _ including an elementary school across the street _ have little to do but wait.

Though the city will tear down houses that pose an immediate danger, it doesn't have the legal right or the money to tear down all the neglected buildings or con

tinually remove garbage from the hundreds of illegal dumps and abandoned houses throughout Tampa, officials say.

"It is the owner's responsibility, it is not the city's property," said Joe Huskey, manager of the city's standards and enforcement division. "If I were next to it I'd be just as frustrated as they are. It's a slow process, but it's a due process. We can't violate a person's property rights even though they're violating the rights of their neighbor."

Residents working to revitalize Tampa's older neighborhoods say the endless fight to clean up abandoned and neglected houses and property is more than an aesthetic annoyance.

"It is forcing the people who are living in the city of Tampa to move outside of the city, taking the tax base with them," said Frank Greco, a resident of Tampa Heights.

Barbara Lewis, a real-estate broker in Seminole Heights said, "When a neighborhood is allowed to go downhill through code enforcement, it attracts a less desirable crowd of people, which in turn makes people leave, and the crime increases. It's a vicious cycle."

Recently, city officials have taken steps to improve the code enforcement system. Changes approved by a state law effective in October will kick in by April, and should substantially speed up the process and beef up enforcement, city officials say.

The Code Enforcement Board, which heard 2,723 cases last year and had a 500-case backlog, will be helped by the addition of three special hearing masters, one of whom will hear cases each week.

The city also will appoint alternates to replace absent board members and prevent the board from postponing cases even longer because of lack of a quorum. Absenteeism caused the code board, which meets at least twice monthly, to lose a quorum five times last year, creating an even bigger backlog of cases.

The new law also allows the city to double the maximum daily fine for code violations from $250 to $500, and lets the city start foreclosure proceedings three months after placing a lien on the property, rather than six. Property owners now also can be fined immediately after a repeat offense, instead of being allowed a grace period to make repairs. And the law also ensures that when property changes hands, code enforcement orders go with it.

Though residents welcome the changes, the magnitude of the problem leaves many of them skeptical.

Lewis, of Seminole Heights, said the city's code inspectors are not aggressive enough and usually respond to violations only on a complaint basis.

"It's totally amazing to me they only respond on a complaint basis when anyone, even my 6-year-old child, can point out code violations," she said. "The laws are on the books, the system is in place, they're just not enforcing them."

Some residents say enforcement is inconsistent.

Greco, of Tampa Heights, said he spent a year trying to get the city to clean up an abandoned house across the street from him. During that time, he said, code inspectors cited the homeowner next door to the abandoned house and made him repaint his porch, Greco said.

"It's a shame to put it this way but minimum standards will basically go after the people they know will take care of the problems," Greco said. "If they know they can't get results out of a person, they just won't bother with it. A lot of the code violations were so severe there was no way they shouldn't have come out to look at them."

Huskey said the city's inspectors _ eight for structure violations and 10 for environmental violations such as illegal dumping _ are doing the best they can to keep up with the enormous demand. The city gets an average of 150 complaints every day about alleged code violations, he said. Each inspector is expected to complete 10 to 15 inspections a day.

Though the pace is busy, adding inspectors wouldn't necessarily solve the problem, as it would just funnel more cases to the already overloaded Code Enforcement Board, Huskey said.

"If the board can't handle what we generate already, it tells me we'd just be that much farther behind," he said. "You can put all the inspectors in the world out there, but ultimately if you don't bring it into compliance it has to go before the judiciary body and that's where the backlog starts."

In many neighborhoods, residents are beginning to work more closely with city officials, who started a "peer-to-peer" program in 1987 to help residents take the problem into their own hands. Under that program, civic groups send postcards to neighborhood residents who appear to be violating city codes.

Last year, the Old Seminole Heights Preservation Society mailed out more than 1,000 postcards to code violators in Seminole Heights, said Howard Moore, the group's president. Only about 25 percent of the people complied, he said.