By Nicole Hennessy
When Lakewood turned 100 years old last year, so did many of its houses. Walking past them, one can imagine entire families living in the massive structures, the fashions of the early 1900s, the mannerisms, customs, music, literature … and World War II years away still.
In order to ensure these houses don’t just deteriorate, Mayor Michael Summers initiated an effort to inspect them one by one, looking for obviously needed repairs – new paint, roofs, driveways or stairs.
In April he announced this plan at his state of the city address. Now, almost six months later, a good portion of the inspections and repairs has been completed.
Dru Siley, the city’s director of planning and development, estimates that number to be around 13,000, which accounts for most of the one- and two-family houses.
“The good news was, we found that about 86 percent of our housing stock is in very good condition,” said Siley. “But what we did find is that about 14 percent of our houses, or 1,700 of them, had some significant repair needs.”
Sending inspectors out to visit these properties, the city is making sure the properties are, or will be, fixed in the near future. Citations are being written to those owners who aren’t complying.
In order to accomplish this, no new employees were needed. However, the number of new contractors this initiative brought into the city and the new permits needed to complete the home improvement projects, as well as citations, all contributed to economic growth.
In an attempt to become more efficient, four of the nine inspectors in the field are equipped with iPads. This allows them to look up properties and see what repairs, if any, have been made and what needs to be done. Within the next two years, all nine of them should have access to an iPad on a regular basis.
For the most part, the citations were secondary. Siley said just sending the initial letters kicked most people into gear.
Now, the next step is resurveying the worse-off homes to see what kind of progress was made. These numbers should be available sometime in November.
For owners of the homes that need significant improvements, the city is giving them time, realizing there may be financial restrictions.
“Maybe this year they fix their roof, and next year they plan on painting their house,” Siley said. “We’re gonna work with them.”
But against the small minority that did nothing, legal action will be taken.
To the residents who are participating in major investments, the city is offering a tax abatement as an incentive.
“The increased value to your property is abated for a couple (of) years,” Siley explained. He wasn’t sure if all the residents were aware of this, but he said they make sure to remind them as often as possible.
This initiative is so important because housing is the economy in Lakewood. And this proactive approach differs from the complaint-driven approach the city has operated under in the past.
One of the myths, now debunked, is that all of the problem properties are located on the east end of Lakewood. The surveys actually revealed that the worse-off properties were equally distributed throughout the city.
The goal for 2013 is to get caught up, meaning each single and multifamily home is brought up to minimum standards. After that, the entire city will be resurveyed every four years.
“There’s much conversation about dramatic improvement in many neighborhoods in terms of housing quality,” Mayor Summers said. “We remain confident that it’s the absolute right thing for us to be doing to help stabilize and improve the quality of all the neighborhoods in Lakewood.”