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Archive for Friday, April 6, 2001

Cities take another look at apartment codes

April 6, 2001

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In February, a fire destroyed a four-plex in a Tonganoxie apartment complex, causing that city to review its building codes and enforcement efforts.

City officials found they had considerable work to do to strengthen codes and give their building inspector stronger enforcement powers.

Short of building condemnation, Tonganoxie officials can do little to landlords who let their property deteriorate, they said.

"That's like having a dog to guard your house that doesn't have any teeth," said Bonnie Sivyer, the sister of one of the fire victims.

Apartment fires also occur in Lawrence, but city officials believe the city's building codes ensure that contractors build apartments as safely as possible, according to Chief Building Inspector Gene Shaughnessy. The city also can take action against negligent landlords when apartment residents bring problems to light.

"We do get calls from people who are concerned," Shaughnessy said. "Most of the time those are about plumbing problems. We look at each individual situation."

Building inspectors will contact landlords about work that needs to be done if problems are found, Shaughnessy said. Depending on the severity of the problem, contacts are made either by letter or telephone call.

"I would say, overall, (landlords) do a pretty good job," Shaughnessy said of their response to problems brought to their attention.

Fire inspectors with LawrenceDouglas County Fire & Medical make periodic fire inspections of apartment buildings with three or more living units, Shaughnessy said. They only look at commons areas and do not go into the living units.

A resident wanting building inspectors to check a problem in their apartment must first sign a form letter granting permission to enter, and the resident must be present when the visit is conducted.

Landlords who do not fix problems can be cited for a misdemeanor code violation and be ordered to appear in Lawrence Municipal Court.

In drastic cases, the city can take information to the Lawrence City Commission and ask for permission to demolish a building if repairs aren't made in 45 days, Shaughnessy said. A building would be declared unfit for habitation and occupants would have to move.

Building inspectors check apartments as they are being constructed to head off future problems or structure dangers, Shaughnessy said.

Electrical systems are checked twice, said Barry Walthall, a Lawrence electrical inspector.

An initial inspection focuses on locations of breaker boxes and outlets, wiring methods and lighting, Walthall said. Some appliances, such as washer and dryers and ranges, require individual circuits.

"There are just a lot of little details to look at," he said.

A final inspection is conducted when construction is completed.

Lawrence has required electricians to be licensed for years, Shaughnessy said. Electricians must be able to prove they are state certified to be licensed or must pass a test through a private testing agency, Shaughnessy said.

Tonganoxie also is studying the possibility of requiring electricians who work in that city to be licensed.

Plumbers also must be licensed in Lawrence.

"It gives you the confidence that somebody knows what they're doing," Walthall said of the licensing requirement.

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