You can't see the house from North Circle Drive. It's hidden at the end of a crumbling driveway at the heart of an unkempt thicket.
This is David Pitts' third stop of the morning, and one of the code enforcement officer's more fascinating cases. The old man who had lived in this Sand Creek house had been a bit of a hoarder, and an amateur builder. In the backyard, he had built a ramshackle series of sheds, certainly with no code in mind, that he had used to store his lifetime collection of memorabilia and random gardening equipment, and some trash.
Even when the old man was still alive, the sheds were used as flophouses for homeless people and teenagers. Now that he's gone, they've moved into his house. Blankets and pillows are left scattered in the front parlor. The old man's family photos lie on the living room floor among bank statements, check stubs, insurance papers, all sorts of personal documents that have been ransacked in hopes of finding something of value. The wall above the fireplace is smoke-stained from regular, and recent, use.
This catches Pitts' eye. A sloppy fire could send this whole four acres of overgrown city forest up in flames.
"The thing to do would be get a bulldozer in here," Pitts says, and knock it all down. Start over. He doesn't know where he'd even begin cleaning up this mess, or where he'd stop. All he can do — all the city of Colorado Springs can afford to do — is come through here every two weeks and board up the windows and secure the doors, after the homeless have come through and torn down the boards and busted out the windows. Play catch-up.
This is one of the three abandoned houses that Pitts will check in on today. Though the city doesn't own these properties, it's responsible for them. The owners have, for any number of reasons, chosen to pay the property taxes and fines and fees that the city charges to cut the weeds, board up the windows, chase off the homeless, and haul away the trash that neighbors dump in their yards.
'It all mushrooms'
When Pitts isn't babysitting abandoned houses, he's responding to complaints about graffiti; about neighbors who let their grass grow wild, or pile their garbage in the back of a broken-down pickup in the driveway; about landlords who put off fixing furnaces until the tenant has to use the stove to heat her apartment; or landlords who avoid fixing the plumbing in the upstairs bathroom until the downstairs ceiling finally caves in. And that's just this morning.
Pitts is one of nine code enforcement officers employed by the city. His boss, Code Enforcement administrator Ken Lewis, says that the city's lucky to have nine. It was only a few months ago that Lewis' department's entire budget, $600,000, was slated to be cut from the 2011 police department budget.
"My whole unit," Lewis says. "I was starting to worry about what I was going to do next." That was before the city manager's office saw a significant uptick in sales tax revenue; the plan now is to restore funding to 2010's level.
Which is great, except that in 2010 (and through recent history) the Springs' level of funding has left much to be desired. As Lewis points out, Commerce City, a municipality of about 45,000 on the outskirts of Denver, has the same number of code officers as the Springs. Aurora, a city of 325,000 bordering Denver's east side, typically has 21.
According to Ron Moore, the manager of Code Enforcement in Aurora, a good number of code officers is one per 15,000 people. Using this measure, Colorado Springs, which had a population of 380,000 in 2008, should have roughly 25 inspectors. And that's before you even factor in land use and zoning, responsibilities that Lewis' department absorbed, along with a single inspector, in 2009. (Similarly, there was discussion of adding an officer in 2011 to account for the increased medical marijuana code enforcement. According to Lewis, however, that position has been pulled from the proposed budget.)
"The officers [elsewhere] measure their areas in square blocks," Lewis says. "But down here, we measure them in square miles."
This understaffing means that Lewis' officers are almost always playing defense. "We do almost no self-initiated enforcement," he says. "It is almost all in response to citizen complaints, and we can't even keep up with that."
Last year, code enforcement received 15,500 phone calls that led to 12,000 cases, almost all based on complaints.
"The alleys on the west side need tons and tons of work, but we don't have time to go over there and invest time, because you can't start at just one property and tell them that they need to pick stuff up and then ignore the other 20 or 30 houses in that alley, 'cause they all probably have violations. And then it mushrooms from there."
"Ken and his folks are overworked and understaffed," agrees Councilor Bernie Herpin. It's not an ideal situation, he admits, but it is the way that the city has to operate nowadays. And it's not just in code. "It's land-use enforcement. It's animal control. Even our police. The majority of our police calls are in response to a complaint. They're not going out and looking for crimes, or trying to prevent crimes. This is the reality of living in one of the lowest-taxed municipalities on the Front Range."
Police Chief Richard Myers calls this "the new normal." He says that months ago, the city budget office was expecting a multimillion-dollar hole in 2011, and "another round of budget cuts as substantial as our cumulative cuts to this point. So we began identifying what's left to cut." Code, which is part of the police department, was "among the other lengthy list of important, but not required, services."
It's the paradox that he faces, Myers says. The police department needs to maintain a rapid-response capacity for any life-threatening situations.
"Those are required, but they represent a relatively small percentage of the service that we provide the community," he says. "And when we scale back to just that service, it's at the cost of all those important-but-not-required services that really sustain quality of life."
The chief has been with the department for four years. Since he started, the department has shed 43 positions from its organizational chart, a reduction of 6 percent. He adds that by the end of this year, the department will have racked up an additional 30 vacancies due to attrition — vacancies that he hasn't been able to fill, in part, because he couldn't afford to run an academy class this year. (He expects to fill those next year, as a new academy class is penciled into the 2011 budget.)
"There is an underlying mistrust that the citizenry at large hold for government these days," the chief says. Due to this mistrust, he continues, people suspect that there is always fat in a budget.
"And I, personally, feel that same way when I look at other levels of government," he acknowledges. "But for those of us in the trenches here, who are making these painful decisions ... we are trying to make decisions that will have the least immediate impact."
"We've already cut into muscle," he adds. "There is no fat."
They eliminated the fugitive apprehension team, the air support unit, the middle-school resource officers, the juvenile offender unit. They've cut the property crime unit from a high of 36 officers down to 12.
Lewis, a former cop of 28 years, knows the police have many more high-profile responsibilities than day-to-day code enforcement issues. But over the past two years, his team has cleaned up or covered up nearly 40,000 graffiti tags. And "if you took that 40,000 tags back and put them where they were," he says, "this city would look like crap."
Plus, he argues, there is a link between the quality-of-life issues his department deals with and the crime that makes headlines. Known as the Broken Window Theory, the argument — which detractors say is short on empirical evidence — goes like this: When a city turns a blind eye to minor infractions, it allows for a more severe criminal element to feel secure.
"When you have stacks of mattresses lying in the streets and abandoned houses," Lewis asserts flatly, "it fosters crime."
Dave Munger is a believer as well. President of the Council of Neighbors and Organizations, he says that when a neighborhood is filled with people who take pride in their homes, keeping them "nice and tidy and well-painted, everybody else tends to do the same. And when somebody lets their house go, others will follow."
On a larger scale, the concept holds true for the pride a city takes in its neighborhoods.
"If we can't keep our city looking attractive, that definitely has a direct impact on our ability to recruit new businesses," Munger says. "And I think that it has an impact on our internal city morale. How we all feel about it."
It's worth noting, he adds, that you often see this more clearly outside the gates of affluent parts of town: "The neighborhoods with less resources that depend on the city to enforce citywide ordinances are feeling the pinch more than most."
'You smell that?'
Code Officer Laura Hogan is overseeing a cleanup at an abandoned house on East Cucharras Street. Again. This is not the first time Hogan has had this house boarded up and the backyard cleaned.
In close proximity to soup kitchens, but nicely tucked away into an industrial edge of downtown, it has become a popular squatting site for homeless people. Between a small shed and a section of fence along the alleyway is a tent; you can see it if you go into the backyard, and around the tree that is used for the toilet. The ground's covered with all sorts of household trash, old bike parts, clothes stomped into the earth. There is a firepit.
After securing the building, the cleanup crew will pry away the fence, opening this cove to the alley and the adjacent parking lot. It'll clean up the mess, and put a padlock on the tent's zipper. The idea is to spend a couple hours this morning making the location less appealing.
The house itself has likely passed the point where it can be rehabilitated. The elements have overtaken it, weakening its roof and foundation. A fire, likely set by squatters, gutted much of it back in September. Eventually, not even the homeless will want in. The woman who owns it has left it to the city, essentially, to care for it. To mitigate the blight it causes and to one day demolish it.
Hogan says she has 10 houses in similar situations among her 80 open cases.
The cost of the cleanup will be charged to the owner, plus 25 percent. In addition, the city can charge her the inspection fees for each time that Hogan has been here.
The city relies on financial incentives, as Lewis puts it, to force owners to take care of their properties but that doesn't always work. A lot of properties are in the foreclosure process, and the owners don't care. Or they mistakenly think that the bank already owns the house.
"People are already upside-down in their mortgages. What does it matter to them if a lien gets filed? They are already thousands of dollars in debt, so what's a couple more?"
The next step for this house, Hogan says, is to place it on the list of dilapidated buildings. The city began legally classifying buildings as dilapidated after passing an ordinance in 2006. If that happens, the property owner will be charged $500 every quarter for inspection.
If a house gets bad enough, a code officer can get it declared a "dangerous building." Then the city can condemn it and ask the city engineer to have it demolished. But that's a long process, and Code only has roughly $50,000 a year to demolish houses. Sometimes one or two houses will take up that entire budget.
While we're talking, a member of the cleanup crew comes over to tell Hogan about a pile of garbage that he found in the parking lot next door.
At first, she's unimpressed. It's all too common nowadays, she says: Instead of paying to have your garbage hauled away, just dump it somewhere out of sight. Even downtown. She has a busy day scheduled, but goes to investigate anyway.
What she finds is all sorts of refuse scattered in a half-dozen rancid mounds on the edge of a large parking lot at the corner of Cucharras and Corona streets, hidden from view by a dilapidated fence and a couple trees.
"It's nasty, you smell that?" Hogan asks. "And you'd never even notice unless you walked up there. People don't want to pay to dump their stuff. So they dump it here, 'cause nobody's looking."
But as she points out, the parking lot is just three blocks off Nevada Avenue, and not much farther from the Police Operations Center.
What concerns Hogan the most, however, are the two 30-gallon barrels filled with what appears to be motor oil, sitting precariously on a pile of lumber. Imagine, she says, if a child were to fall in or knock one over.
So she does something that she rarely does. On her own, she opens a case.
First and foremost, Colorado Springs' Code Enforcement unit inspects publicly and privately owned residential buildings to ensure "safe and sanitary living conditions" for all city residents, and, as of last year absorbed the responsibilities of land-use and zoning regulation within the city. It also deals with:
• Public health and sanitation
• Noise enforcement
• Unlicensed/inoperable vehicles
• Oversize vehicle parking and storage in residential zones
• Recreational vehicle parking and storage in residential zones
• Light intrusion
• Maintenance of adjacent rights of way
• Temporary signs
• Signs on public property or rights of way
• Inspection and licensing of garbage/trash removal trucks