Austin Code’s ‘Repeat Offender Program’ could increase utility bills

austin code (KXAN Photo)
austin code (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A potential increase in your utility bill could go toward funding the oversight needed to hold landlords accountable for fixing their own properties.

KXAN has reported on the struggles to crack down on apartments on Austin Code’s Repeat Offender List. These properties are ones that have racked up health and safety violations, including a lack of hot water and structural issues.

Wednesday, Austin Code made a budget presentation to the city council that included a request of 27 new positions. Several would go toward enhancing enforcement of short terms rentals and the Repeat Offender Program. Currently, the program has three enforcement officers. Austin Code is requesting four more. Funding could come in the form of a $0.90 increase to the “Clean Community Fee” on your utility bill.

“Our concern… is that distributes the burden of the cost of this program to everybody who pays a city of Austin utility bill, regardless of whether they’re participating in the program,” Juliana Gonzales, executive director of Austin Tenants Council told KXAN. “Without the funding to run the program, it’s really an ineffective program right now. So an increase in registration fees would put the burden of running that program on to the property owners, who are creating the need for the program.”

Once a property racks up the violations needed to land itself on the Repeat Offender List, it’s supposed to pay a $254 registration fee.

Thing is, there are several properties that are on the list, but haven’t paid up. And really, the fee is low when you consider the fee is the same no matter the property size. It’s that fee the Austin Tenants Council feel the city should increase, so fees collected can help fund the resources the program needs when it comes to oversight. Austin Code has suggested raising the fee to $300 a year.

“It could be charging larger registration fees, it could even be charging fees based on the number of units in a property,” Gonzales said. “And so in this case I really think we should take advantage of the fact that we have a program that could fund itself, that wouldn’t need to put a burden on the rest of the city budget and however would still protect some of our most vulnerable citizens, the people that are living in substandard housing.”

Paul Tomasovic, Austin Code’s assistant director, said, “We are currently behind in our inspections. We have a potential of about 168 repeat offender properties out there. Currently right now we only have 78 that are registered.”

Austin Code says four years into the program, it’s time for a re-evaluation of the Repeat Offender Program. But that closer look most likely won’t happen until after city council has to approve a budget next month.

“I’m just concerned as to what is this program actually doing and is it benefiting my family?” Sarah Hirneisen, who was with her kids at Brentwood Park told KXAN. “And do we really need to be paying more for something it sounds like the building owner should really be paying for.”

Following Wednesday’s budget workshop, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo said, “We do need to make sure that we’re holding people accountable.”

That said, she added there are important factors to consider. “If we raise the fees for repeat offenders so high — those will be passed along to tenants,” she said. “So we want to be careful.”

Public comment on the proposed budget will be held next Thursday.

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