TACOMA, Wash. — Are you a nuisance?
Tacoma now has an online map that tracks pending code violations with offenders' names and addresses.
The map, which debuted April 2, uses icons to show locations where a violation is in process. A click brings up personal information, the type of violation and the action taken.
The map is an outgrowth of the city's encampment response map, said Allyson Griffith, who manages the neighborhood enhancement team within the neighborhood and community services department.
The map also debuted with a newly redesigned compliance website with graphics and other explainers.
Some are heralding the map as a tool to clean up problem properties quicker.
“It helps to see if it’s already been reported by somebody and they are already working on it,” said South End resident Cheryl Kopec.
Others are not as enthused.
“It’s a scarlet letter,” said North End homeowner Allen Cassino who didn’t know he was on the map until contacted by a reporter.
The map contains links to the Pierce County Assessor and information about each property owner. By adjusting filters, the map can also display closed cases from years in the past.
Violations fall into three categories:
“Nuisance” can include a lawn that’s a foot tall or higher, extensive blackberry bushes, a dilapidated fence, a yard full of garbage, graffiti or more than six vehicles on a lot.
“Building” refers to abandoned or neglected structures. Yes, that includes the home missing its roof, but it’s also the cute bungalow that on second glance has a rotting porch.
“What we inspect is what we can see from the right-of-way,” Griffith said.
“Right-of-way” violations could be an unlicensed vehicle that’s parked in an alley. Or, it could be a bush that has grown into a sidewalk.
In 2018, Tacoma opened 3,700 code enforcement cases. Of those, 2,816 were nuisance. The rest were derelict building (333), graffiti (220), substandard building (69) and unfit building (11).
None of those specific categories show up on the interactive map.
“Technologically, we’re not yet there,” Griffith said.
In addition, the city hasn’t yet determined what should be visible to the public, she said.
The wreckage of Ernesto Duran's cyclone fence and gates had lain in his otherwise tidy South Tacoma yard for months as he negotiated with the neighbor who had destroyed it in a car accident.
Promises of work and money had been made, but there had been little action.
Then on April 11, Duran’s landlord got a notice from the city. He had 18 days to clean up the mess.
Duran got busy that day.
“I show (the notice to the neighbor) and I say, ‘Hey, you need to fix it this weekend,’” Duran said of negotiations that had concluded minutes earlier at his undamaged front gate. In the end, the neighbor decided to pay Duran.
Duran doesn’t mind that his address is on the city map.
“I already got the money for the material, so I can fix it,” the easy-going Duran said. “It’s no big deal.”
He also doesn’t care that an anonymous neighbor turned him in.
That’s how code enforcement works in Tacoma. If you get a notice, it’s almost always because one of your neighbors made a complaint.
“Most of our complaints we get are neighbors who have maybe, walking by, observed things that aren’t safe,” Griffith said.
That’s probably what happened to Cassino and his wife Samantha. The couple live at a neatly maintained home in the North End.
“We’re waiting patiently for the letter,” Cassino said Tuesday. The map calls him a nuisance but doesn’t say why.
“I’m looking at my house. What is it that could be offensive? The only thing I can think of is my tree,” he said.
Cassino’s stately Japanese maple hangs over a sidewalk. His next-door neighbor has one that’s nearly identical. It, too, hangs into the sidewalk. Perhaps not coincidentally, the neighbors also are on the nuisance map.
Keith Williams, code compliance supervisor, confirmed to The News Tribune that Cassino’s maple is the reason why his home is on the map. Williams said a warning card was mailed in March.
Cassino had an arborist trim the tree recently. It wasn’t enough. Bushes and branches must not hang below eight feet over a sidewalk, according to city code.
Cassino said he’s fine with the code compliance process and the online map, but he feels it doesn’t go far enough. He wants to see the name of the person who filed the complaint as well. He’d also like to see specifics on complaints rather than a generic “nuisance.”
At the same time, Cassino understands how someone might want retribution against the complaint maker.
“Then don’t put the stuff online,” Cassino said.
The same day Cassino’s tree was on the map, a home about 15 blocks away was surrounded by garbage and had its front door boarded over by the city.
“By order of the city do not occupy,” was stenciled on the plywood. The home is considered derelict, said Keith Williams, code compliance supervisor.
“The owner hasn’t made any efforts to repair the house,” Williams said. Nor have they communicated with the city. The city will begin a civil penalty process, he said.
The two situations were different ends of the spectrum. On the city’s map, both were labeled as “nuisance.”
It begins with a neighbor who sees something they don't like. A call to 311 will start the process.
Don’t bother asking, the city won’t tell you who complained.
“We always prefer that folks figure out a neighborly way to resolve things,” Griffith said. “Folks don’t always feel safe doing that.”
Once the complaint is received, a code inspector will visit the property. The city employs six inspectors who determine if a violation is occurring.
If the inspector finds a violation, a case is opened. That case goes on the city’s interactive map.
The first notice a homeowner will get is a written one in the mail. It might be a warning card if it’s not a safety issue. A more serious violation could come with multiple pages and photos.
“I’ve actually gotten one, too,” Williams said. “From my co-worker.” Williams and his neighbors had let their alley become overgrown with blackberries.
The homeowner has 18 days from the date of the notice to correct the problem.
If the problem is corrected, the case will be closed.
If it isn’t, several things can happen.
“We can issue civil penalties,” Griffith said. “Those are fines trying to cause you to gain compliance.”
The standard fine is $250.
The city also can resort to abatement. A warrant is issued that allows the city or its contractors to enter the property and take corrective action. If the owner doesn’t pay for the action, a lien will be attached to the property.
Buildings have several levels of violation.
The lowest level, sub-standard, still allows occupancy.
“It needs minor work, but there are no safety issues,” Williams said. “We don’t normally address substandard issues unless there is quite a list.”
A gutter may be hanging off, for instance, and a window might be broken.
Then, there’s the “derelict” level.
“There’s enough issues with the building that you cannot occupy the building but not so bad that we’re worried the building needs to come down,” Griffith said.
Finally, there is the “unfit” category — a building that will need to be either repaired immediately or demolished.
Not all calls to 311 are legitimate violations. You can’t turn your neighbor in for having too many weeds or because you don’t like their house color.
JUNK CARS AND GARBAGE
Vehicles are a big issue for a lot of Tacomans. Vehicles parked illegally in alleys. Vehicles parked on lawns. Or just too many vehicles.
Residents are allowed to have only six on their property. A vehicle is anything that requires a license plate: cars, trucks, motorcycles, trailers.
Can you park a vehicle on your front lawn? No, says city code. In front yards, vehicles can only be parked on a driveway.
Alleys are a source of frustration for many residents if comments on community messaging boards are a gauge. Usually, it's the city's Road Use Compliance team in the Public Works Department that handles those complaints.
“It’s best if the folks can provide the make and model of the vehicle, the license plate if possible,” Griffith said.
If public safety is involved — the alley is completely blocked — then a call to the Police Department is warranted.
Let it be settled once and forever: Residents do not own, control or otherwise have any say in who parks adjacent to their property on a city street. As long as they are legal, anyone can park in front of your house.
Garbage is a common complaint.
DIYers needn’t worry about the city coming after the days-old leftovers of a remodeling project. First, most people give their neighbors some slack, Griffith said.
“It usually takes a few days before you make a complaint,” she said. Then, it takes a few days for an inspector to visit the site.
“You’ve got to get it taken care of within that 18 days,” she said.
Vacant lots gather a lot of complaints.
Absentee landlords do not escape the long arm of code enforcement. Notices will be sent to the legal landlord.
“They can be more frustrating for our community because the reaction time is less quick,” Griffith said. “But if it’s city property, we will take care of that. We are subject to our own rules.”
Overgrown bushes can fall under the critical eye of a city inspector.
“If they encroach into the public right-of-way like the sidewalk or street or blocking stop signs,” Williams said. If your neighbor’s hedge or tree is encroaching onto your property you’ll have to work that out on your own.
“Unless it’s a safety issue,” he said.
The city will work with homeowners who are going after a natural aesthetic or creating wildlife habitat, Griffith said. Every complaint notice contains the inspector’s name and phone number. Negotiation is always an option.
In addition, the city will work with homeowners who might not be able to afford fixes.
Elderly and disabled residents might qualify for assistance.
“Don’t just ignore us,” Griffith said. “It’s about health and safety.”
On Tacoma's Eastside, MacIntosh Court Apartments manager Jennifer Hoover was looking over the interactive map for the first time last week. She was searching for a nearby nuisance complaint she had recently reported to 311.
Hoover has had to report abandoned cars and garbage dumps on surrounding lots and right-of-ways.
“If you see it, report it,” is the mantra she urges her fellow apartment managers to use.
“They were having major trash dumped over there,” she said of another recent call to Code Enforcement. “It took them only a week for them to identify it, address it. It was gone about a week later.”
At a nearby vacant lot at East McKinley Avenue and East 75th Street, what could be a de facto park with cottonwoods and lush greenery is instead marred with discarded clothing, a mattress and box springs and bottles filled with questionable liquids. A well-worn path through Himalayan blackberries leads to a tent.
The 4.4-acre lot is an open case on the map. The lot’s owners are a couple who live in the North End. The information for the case reads: “Citation issued.”
“If you’re the property owner you are responsible for whatever happens on your property,” Williams said. “They may decide to fence it. They may decide to sell it. They may decide to have someone go in once a week (to clean it up).”
South End resident Kopec keeps a watchful eye over her neighborhood. She uses a 311 app to report nuisances in her area as well as Wapato Park, where motor homes can set up shop.
“The last time I did that the motor home was gone in days,” Kopec said.
Like Cassino, Kopec wishes the map had more information on violations.
“I wish it was more specific,” she said. “Maybe there could be subcategories. Is it too many vehicles? Is it garbage?”
Kopec appreciates the effort on the city’s part.
© 2020 The News Tribune