Bonita Springs might not need a code enforcement department if all rental properties were kept as tidy as Joyce Lockhart's.
Lockhart's mobile home in Bonita Beach Village passed what Lockhart considered to be a "very simple" inspection Thursday morning, taking only 15 minutes for a code enforcement officer to check the grounds for things like correctly installed electrical wires, sufficient plumbing and a well-kept yard.
In an effort to curb blight and raise the quality of life in Bonita Springs, Lockhart's home was the first on a long list of rental property inspections that began this week by the city's newly formed code enforcement department. The department hopes the routine, which will be conducted annually, will help catch blemished homes and overpopulated residences before the violations can become too rooted in a residential community. Only rental properties with less than six units will require a walk-through inspection.
"The rental properties are important because there's usually confusion between affordable housing and substandard living," said Frank Cassidy, the city's code enforcement supervisor. "What we have are some properties that are becoming dilapidated and in states of disrepair. That is bringing down the overall quality of life."
Lockhart, who described the procedure as "very simple," said she submitted her paperwork to the city early, anticipating a flood of other applicants would be scrambling to schedule inspections as well.
"I wanted to make sure that mine was done because you're not supposed to rent before you have the certificate," she said. "Since my person is coming the first of the year, we wanted to be sure that we had it in place."
The city is unsure how many rental properties need inspection, but Cassidy estimated the number to be a few thousand.
Frank Cassidy, Bonita Springs code enforcement supervisor
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Joyce Lockhart, who owns the property that the city first inspected
The city's Rental Property Ordinance has not changed since the new inspections began, but the new effort will enforce the standards that were already in place, Cassidy said.
For the next two weeks, the code enforcement office will be working to get inspections done on a volunteer basis — basically any rental property owners who want to renew their annual permit can go to City Hall at 9101 Bonita Beach Road and fill out the forms to request an inspection. The inspection costs $100 per unit, and every rental property needs to be inspected.
After two weeks, however, the code enforcement officers become will begin to hunt through neighborhoods in search of rental property plots that have not been inspected to try to get a correct account.
"We don't have an accurate count yet," Cassidy said, "but we'll come across them one way or another."
Though code enforcement officers check the basic structure of the property as well as the landscaping and general upkeep, one of the biggest concerns for the city is overcrowding. Cassidy said the city expects to find the most occupancy problems in homes around the Old 41 corridor.
"It's really a problem all over the city, but I think a higher concentration is going to be in that area," he said.
Though code enforcement cannot evict anyone from the property — an eviction is when a landlord legally ejects a tenant — they can determine the home to be unsafe or unfit to inhabit, which requires anyone more than normal occupancy to vacate.
"We don't evict, but we vacate," Cassidy said. "Then we go after the property owner to try to remedy the situation. At the same time that we do that, we hand out information and resources to these folks to try to help them find some other place to live."
Cassidy said the Salvation Army and the United Way are two organizations the city is depending on to help find housing for people vacated from overcrowded homes. He also said that unless the situation is severe, people would not be forced to leave the homes immediately.
Al McIntyre, the code enforcement officer who inspected Lockhart's property, said the department isn't coming down on communities with an iron fist and expecting property owners to fix substantial violations overnight. However, the city is taking a more proactive approach to getting violations dealt with as quickly as possible because code violations are among the more common complaints from residents.
"It's always a strong subject matter," he said. "It has the most direct effect on people."
Owners who acquire violations during their inspections will receive a "reasonable amount of time," according to Cassidy, to remedy the situation before any fines are imposed. Depending on the severity of the violation, fines imposed can cost up to $250 for every day a violation is not fixed.
The improvements to bring plots up to standard are expected to push crime rates down and boost property values, Cassidy said.
"We're not property managers," he said. "We protect the quality of life. It's our job to make sure that the living conditions of communities are such that they promote healthy living."