Avvennett Gezahan & Nathan Williams
Community Prosecution Section – Dallas City Attorney’s Office
SPRING 2020 ISSUE:
LANDLORD & TENANT ISSUES
In 2016, after much research, debate, and input from countless groups and residents, the City of Dallas significantly amended its Chapter 27 Minimum Property Standards. In the article below, attorneys Avvennett Gezahan and Nathan Williams give an overview of the who, what, where, and why of the amended Chapter 27 ordinance while also providing a first-hand account of inspecting one blighted property the ordinance aims to bring into safe and healthy compliance. As members of the Community Prosecution Division of the Dallas City Attorney’s Office, Gezahan, Williams, and their colleagues work in regional teams of code enforcement officers, fire marshals, and Dallas police officers to proactively empower, strength, and engage the communities of Dallas. But, when proactive measures no longer work, community prosecutors may sue property owners for violating Dallas ordinances, including Chapter 27.
My team and I were on our way to my first inspection of a reported boarding home. I imagined a large house with lots of bedrooms and bathrooms with a spacious living room and kitchen that all the tenants shared. What I walked into was not what I imagined. Every bedroom housed three to four people. The living room had been converted into a bedroom. The kitchen was inoperable. The house was falling apart—derelict. It had no hot water and was infested with rodents. The imaginary house in my head had just crumbled. I was so confused. I kept going back to one question—Who is responsible for fixing this house? I found my answer in Chapter 27 of the Dallas City Code.
What is Chapter 27?
Chapter 27 was established to prohibit substandard or “unsafe and poorly maintained” structures in the City of Dallas.1 Chapter 27 ensures that both residential and nonresidential properties meet specifically defined minimum property standards.
The purpose of Chapter 27 is clear. “[I]nadequate provision for light and air, insufficient protection against fire, lack of proper heating, insanitary conditions, and overcrowding constitute a menace to the health, safety, morals, welfare, and reasonable comfort of the citizens of the city of Dallas.”2 Without Chapter 27, Dallas lawmakers believed “the existence of such conditions [would] create slum and blighted areas.”3 Without minimum property standards, these areas would suffer from large-scale demolition, a “deterioration of social values, a curtailment of investment and tax revenue, and an impairment of economic values.”4 The Chapter 27 minimum property standards are essential to “the prevention of blight and decay and the safeguarding of public health, safety, morals, and welfare.”5
How does Chapter 27 work?
Chapter 27 applies to both vacant and occupied buildings, properties, and structures.6As I walked through the boarding home, I was shocked and saddened by the conditions in which the tenants were living.
Most of the obligations imposed under Chapter 27 are the responsibility of the property owner. “An owner shall” is repeated more than thirty-six times throughout Chapter 27. In legal terms, shall means must. Under Chapter 27, the property owner must maintain the property’s structural integrity, utilities, health, and security in compliance with the minimum property standards.7
The property owner must operate the premises “without any holes, excavations, or sharp protrusions,” and without conditions on the land that could be “reasonably capable of causing injury to a person.”8 The property owner must keep the roof, foundation, floors, ceilings, stairs, and other structural conditions free from deterioration.9
The property owner must also provide and maintain bathroom sinks, kitchen sinks, tubs, and toilets that are connected to a water source.10 The kitchen sink, bathroom sink, and tub must have a source of cold and hot water, and the hot water must reach 110° F.11 The property owner must provide heat “capable of maintaining a room temperature of at least 15 degrees warmer than the outside temperature,” but in no lower than 68° F in each habitable room.12 Air conditioning units are required and must be capable of maintaining an inside temperature of “at least 15 degrees cooler than the outside temperature” but no higher than 85° F in each habitable room.13
The property owner is responsible for maintaining the health and security standards of the property. Chapter 27 requires the property owner eliminate rodents, insects, and vermin from the interior of the structure.14 All vacant structures and units should be locked and be free from garbage on the interior. “An owner of a multifamily dwelling . . . [must] provide and maintain security devices in each dwelling unit.”15 This means it is the property owner’s responsibility to keep any bars, grills, grates, or security devices on doors and windows in operating condition.16
Chapter 27 serves to provide property owners with standards to ensure occupants are safe, healthy, and secure. It is essential that property owners maintain structures in a safe and non-hazardous condition for people to live—while eating, sleeping, and raising their children, or to working—while running their businesses and serving the public.
Does an occupant/tenant have any responsibilities?
Yes. Under Chapter 27, the City of Dallas places minimum responsibilities on an occupant or tenant. In my head, I thought, how could these tenants be responsible? Granted, on my visit, there were bugs, trash, and holes in the structure. Just like the average person, I reasonably assumed the owner would be responsible for maintaining the property because the tenants are paying rent.
But Chapter 27 explains that an occupant or tenant must maintain the dwelling without solid waste or other conditions that could cause an infestation.17 The occupant must remove any animal that can have a hazardous or dangerous effect on an occupant’s health.18 In addition, an occupant may not alter the structure to use it in a way different from the structure’s intended purpose—meaning that someone who rents a home to live in cannot then turn it into a restaurant or some other purpose.19 Finally, the occupant is responsible for notifying the property owner of any unsafe or hazardous conditions that violate the minimum housing standards.
Who enforces Chapter 27?
The City of Dallas gives the Department of Code Compliance Services the job of enforcing Chapter 27’s minimum property standards. The department’s inspectors are both reactive and proactive. Inspectors are reactive because they respond to service requests received online, via the mobile app, and through the 3-1-1 call center from tenants, occupants, concerned residents, or anyone else. Inspectors are proactive because they work to address issues that could—if left alone—become code enforcement cases or complaints before they escalate to the point of mandated abatement or citation. This process is typically carried out largely in the form of education.
How do I make a complaint?
Anyone can submit a complaint to Code Compliance. An inspector will then inspect the property to determine whether a violation exists. The inspectors are authorized “to inspect: (1) the exterior of a structure and premises . . . ; and (2) the interior of a structure, if the owner, occupant, or person in control gives his permission.”20 If there is a violation, the inspector will issue a notice of violation with a deadline for correction, giving the property owner time to fix the problems. The inspector will inspect the property again after the deadline has expired. If the violation has been corrected, the case is closed. If the violation has not been corrected, a citation is issued.
Can the property owner evict me if I make a complaint?
A landlord cannot evict a tenant for making a valid complaint. In fact, doing so would be illegal. If a tenant files a valid Chapter 27 complaint, it is against the law for a property owner, as defined in Chapter 27, to “…raise the tenant’s rent,” “diminish services,” or attempt eviction within six months of the tenant’s complaint.21 The City of Dallas may penalize the property and property owner for failing to address minimum property standards raised in a valid complaint.
How does the enforcement process work?
The City may enforce provisions of Chapter 27 through various methods, including issuing criminal or civil citations or filing a lawsuit in municipal or state district court. Enforcement of minimum housing standards ensures that each structure is safe for those who live in the neighborhood.22
A person or business23 that violates a provision of Chapter 27 or fails to make repair in compliance with Chapter 27, commits an offense that may result in the City issuing the owner or occupant of the property a criminal or civil citation. The initial fine varies depending on the offense. The fine ranges from $150 per day up to $500 per day for a first offense, and can run up to $2,000 per day for criminal offenses and $1,000 per day for civil offenses.24 Each day that the violation is not fixed may result in additional citations.25 Owners or tenants of a structure that repeatedly have the same violations can see higher minimum fines. The minimum fine associated with an offense can double if the owner is convicted of the same offense a second time and triple if convicted a third time within a 24-month period.26
Structures that are not repaired in a timely manner can become an eyesore for neighbors, as well as a source for vermin. In addition, vacant structures may constitute “attractive nuisances” under certain circumstances, which means that their vacant nature may attract people to enter the structure and lead to crime and injury. For example, children, vagrants, or criminals may be drawn to the property and either cause additional damage to the structure or become injured. Owners of such an “attractive nuisance” could be held liable for any injuries that occur on the property. Neighborhoods with high crime statistics are more dangerous to the residents and less desirable places for residents to live. Higher crime rates can also result in lower property values.
The Dallas Municipal Court is a court of record, which means it has the power and duty to hold public hearings to determine whether properties and associated structures are complying with minimum housing standards. Structures that do not meet minimum housing standards may be deemed an “urban nuisance.”27
An urban nuisance means the structure meets at least one of three criteria.28 First, the structure is “dilapidated, substandard, or unfit for human habitation and is a hazard to the public health, safety, and welfare.”29 Second, the structure, regardless of its condition, is unoccupied and unsecured from unauthorized entry, posing a risk that it could be used by vagrants, children, or other uninvited persons.30 Owners of such an “attractive nuisance” could be held liable for any injuries that occur on the property. Third, even if the structure is “boarded up, fenced, or otherwise secured,” the structure still constitutes a danger to the public; or the structure is not adequately secured “to prevent unauthorized entry or use of the structure.”31
At the courthouse, prior to the hearing, owners or interested parties can form an agreement with the City to either repair the structure or demolish the structure within a given time period.32 Owners or interested parties that are not living persons (such as businesses) will need to have an attorney present to sign any agreements or to be represented in court.
During a hearing in the Dallas Municipal Court, if the Court determines that a property constitutes an urban nuisance, the judge can require removal of the occupants of the structure; securing of an open or vacant structure; repair of the structure by the owner, the City, or a private entity; demolition of the structure by the owner, the City, or a private entity; or assess a criminal and civil penalty of up to $1,000 per day per violation against owners who fail to bring the structure into compliance.33 The City can pursue collection of civil penalties awarded against any responsible party, and can also file a priority lien against the property for costs of demolition.34
Sometimes, the City may also seek to bring a property into compliance with Chapter 27 by filing a lawsuit in district court.35 As in the municipal court, if the City can demonstrate that there is a “substantial danger of injury or an adverse health impact to any person or to the property of any person other than the defendant,” the City may obtain a court order requiring the owner, or owner’s representative with control over the premises, to do something specific or prohibit something specific necessary for compliance with the ordinance.36 If the order is not followed, the court may assess a civil penalty of up to $1,000 for each day the defendant committed acts in violation of the ordinance or failed to take action necessary for compliance.37
The City can file an in personam action, meaning an action only against the owner or owner’s representative with control over the property, or the City may choose to include an in rem action against the property itself in an effort to bring the property into code compliance.38 The City can also file a notice of lis pendens with the county to place subsequent property owners on notice of the pending lawsuit.39 Failing to comply with the district court order may result in imprisonment.40
The minimum property standards in Chapter 27 are in place to keep the residents of Dallas safe, and to protect them from substandard structures—ensuring that Dallas residents are not living in conditions faced by the occupants of the illegal boarding home described in the introduction of this article.
1 Dallas, Tex., Dallas City Code, ch. 27, § 27-1 (2019).
6 Dallas City Code, ch. 27, § 27-11.
12 Dallas City Code, ch. 27, § 27-11.
17 Dallas City Code, ch. 27, § 27-12.
20 Dallas City Code, ch. 27, § 27-5.
21Id. § 27-5.2(a)(1).
22Id. § 27-4.
23 Dallas City Code, ch. 27, § 27-3.
24Id. § 27-4.
27Id. § 27-16.3 (2019).
28 Dallas City Code, ch. 27, § 27-3(40).
32 Dallas City Code, ch. 27, § 27-16.3.
35 Tex. Loc. Gov’t Code § 54.013.
36Id. § 54.016.
37Id. § 54.017.
38Id. § 54.018.
40Id. § 54.019.