June 22, 2008

Inspector Shortage Blunts Portsmouth’s Battle Against Blight

By Meghan Hoyer, The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, Va.

Jun. 22--PORTSMOUTH -- Upset citizens pointed to pictures of their neighbors' sagging porch roofs, shattered windows and yards filled with debris.

Portsmouth needed to beef up its code enforcement, they demanded.

The City Council agreed.

Four more code inspectors were hired after that meeting in 2005 to catch problems ranging from peeling paint to tall grass. Later, a vacant housing registry was started. Residents crowed that the city finally had turned a corner in addressing its worst problem properties.

But only a few years later, the codes department is back to where it started.

The four additional positions are vacant through attrition. And a hiring freeze means they won't be filled soon.

"While the department is shrinking, we've got communities being blighted more and more by vacant housing," Councilman Bill Moody Jr. said. "We're letting communities down."

Census figures reveal that Portsmouth and Norfolk have twice the number of vacant homes as other Hampton Roads cities. Neighborhood advocates have repeatedly pointed to the issue as one of the biggest problems facing their communities.

Policing vacant properties needed to be a priority for the city, Moody said.

Portsmouth codes officials this past week declined to speak about staffing or whether the vacant house registry is current. The registry, which charges owners an annual fee for keeping a house empty, tracks vacant properties and requires owners to keep them maintained and secure.

City spokeswoman Monique Bass said the codes department staffing shortage hadn't put a stop to the registry, but had limited how much attention it gets.

"The program has been affected by the hiring freeze because there are vacancies we cannot fill," she said. "It's being kept up to date as much as possible. We're trying to do more or the same amount with less people."

City records show that in 2006 -- the first year Portsmouth had 20 inspectors rather than 16 -- the city issued more than 47,000 codes violations. In 2007, the city issued more than 33,000 violations and also started the vacant housing registry, a time-intensive job that involved cataloging hundreds of empty houses and tracking down their owners.

By early 2008, the department was back down to 16 inspectors.

In the first three months of this year, the department issued 7,000 violations. Councilman Doug Smith said he viewed the personnel shortfall as a short-term problem. The city is awaiting a consultant's recommendation on how it can save $7.1 million in salaries by shedding hundreds of jobs. But both Smith and Moody said they viewed the code inspector positions as untouchable.

"I'd certainly be disappointed if the study came back and didn't put adequate resources into the neighborhood improvement strategies we've put in place," Smith said. "It's imperative that we continue to focus on the vacant housing. That is a tremendous indicator of a problem in a neighborhood. It's something you can deal with."

Despite the inspector shortage, Olde Towne resident Barbara Early said the situation still remained better than it was in 2005 when she and a few other citizens lobbied the City Council for help. Inspectors now have more training, she said, and carry hand-held computers to help speed their work -- meaning that fewer people can get the job done.

"In our neighborhood, a lot of the properties that had some issues don't have them anymore," Early said. "The code inspector downtown -- she's excellent. She does her job, and she does it so we don't have to do it."

Meghan Hoyer, (757) 446-2293, [email protected]


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