JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The city of Jacksonville is drafting new policy and procedures related to how code enforcement officers hold landlords accountable if they find violations that do not meet minimum housing standards.
In other words, if landlords take too long to fix living conditions considered unsafe or unhealthy for a tenant, the city can issue a citation to the landlord, which can cost $250 per violation.
This sweeping change to the way code enforcement addresses uncooperative landlords applies to all tenant-landlord issues, said Stephanie Burch, the city’s deputy chief administrative officer.
The decision to revamp the process is directly related to a series of I-TEAM stories exposing a mice infestation at the Hilltop Village Apartments on West 45th Street in Northwest Jacksonville.
Specifically, we discovered code enforcement inspectors were called by a tenant, Sedricia Tinsley, in May 2020 reporting a mice infestation. An inspector confirmed a “rodent infestation” in her apartment the following month. An inspector then returned in August, September and twice in October to see if the violation had been remedied. Each time, the inspector noted there had been no change or that the rodent problem was worse. Yet the landlord was not fined or penalized.
We wanted to know why it took our story, 11 months later, for code enforcement to issue a citation to the landlord.
Burch explained why it took so long, saying: “There are a couple of different ways that citations can be written for different types of violations through the code. One process is to take it to a special magistrate and, if that happens, it’s very similar to going to court. You have to have all your correct paperwork, all the evidence that you need to have, then you have to present it to the magistrate.”
Burch said the magistrate can then order the landlord to fix the problem and, if it is not, then a citation can be issued. She said that code violations that involve interior problems, problems inside an apartment, are typically sent to a special magistrate.
For Tinsley, the tenant who reported a mice infestation on May 9, 2020, it took from October to Jan. 11 for a special magistrate to hear her case even after five previous inspections. Despite evidence of a persistent mice infestation, the magistrate gave the landlord 30 days to fix the violation. When inspectors returned to Tinsley’s apartment after 30 days and noted rodents were still present, another magistrate granted the landlord an additional 30 days to comply. When that time period ended, an inspector returned to Tinsley’s apartment on April 20 and again found evidence of mice. The case was scheduled to appear again before another special magistrate on May 13 without any fine levied against the landlord.
It wasn’t until our story aired and we called the mayor’s office asking for answers that Tinsley’s case was pulled from the special magistrate process. On Friday, 360 days after Tinsley called code enforcement, the landlord was issued a citation.
While Burch acknowledges that the process took too long, she said code enforcement does not have the authority to inspect anyone’s apartment without their permission. She said code enforcement had no way of knowing there was a widespread infestation. She said that last fiscal year, code enforcement only received four complaints, which included Tinsley’s, about Hilltop Village Apartments.
“If there had been more complaints from this complex like what Ms. Tinsley had, I can assure you we would have acted more quickly to inspect the other units,” she said.
She said four calls weren’t enough to indicate to code enforcement officers that there was such an overriding issue with an infestation.
Burch said the property manager at Hilltop Village Apartments was also assuring code enforcement officers, in Tinsley’s case, that they were working to fix the rodent problem.
“The property manager was working with us all along the way. They were very responsive to us when we reached out to them. They spoke to us every time the officers went to the office to speak with them,” she explained. “They seemed to be very helpful. It turns out that they apparently weren’t fixing the problems like they were telling us they were and the only way we can find that out is by going back and doing the re-inspections.”
As a result of what happened, Burch said, tenant-landlord issues will be handled differently now.
“I think if there is a silver lining, we are changing the process and we’re going to do exactly what you said. For any kind of tenant-landlord-type situation that has minimum housing standard issues, like this, we are going to do a paying citation instead of going through the magistrate, like we did with this one (Sedricia Tinsleys’ case),” Burch said.
That change has already started at Hilltop Village Apartments. Burch said 34 citations were issued against the landlord on Friday, totaling $8,500. Many of them are for rodent issues. These citations came just two weeks after code enforcement’s recent mass inspection of the property.
While Burch could not give us specific details about the policy and procedural changes, saying, “I haven’t seen a first draft of it yet,” she did say they will apply to all tenants, not just those living at Hilltop Village Apartments. She referred us to the city’s maintenance code, which describes minimum housing standard issues as involving structural, plumbing, electrical, heating, venting issues, along with roofing, foundation, and interior and exterior walls. Violations associated with these kinds of issues would fall under the new policy and be expedited to hold the landlord responsible sooner than the previous procedures.
Burch urges the public to call code enforcement if they are struggling to get their landlord to fix any problems.
“I want to educate and inform tenants that they don’t have to deal with proper management. They can also call code enforcement so the city can go out and inspect. It’s important that they know that we are here to help. We need them to call us and tell us when they’re having an issue,” she explained.
The number to call to reach code enforcement is 904-630-CITY (2489).
As part of the policy change, Burch also said code enforcement officers will be retrained.