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Housing In Ann Arbor

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According to a high level city official, housing code enforcement reforms which would apply the law fairly and establish proper bureaucratic procedures for enforcement will "sink" the Ann Arbor Housing Inspection Bureau.

Leigh Chizek, assistant city administrator for engineering services, was quoted in The Ann Arbor News (Nov. 7, 1986) as saying "the (Ann Arbor) Tenants' Union has clearly targeted the Housing Bureau, to sink it, and they're succeeding." Chizek's comments came in response to a lawsuit fïled by city housing inspector Ray Ayer under the Michigan Whistleblower Protection Act. The 1981 state law is on the books "to provide protection to employees who report a violation or suspected violation of state, local, or federal law."

Ayer's lawsuit charges city, hall management with unfair treatment in response to Ayer's efforts "to get the city Building Department to apply the housing and building code uniformly and in total conformity with the law." The lawsuit names the city, Chizek, Housing Inspection Bureau Supervisor Bill Yadlosky, and Building Department Director D. Jack Donaldson as defendants.

Chizek's claim that the whistleblower lawsuit is a Tenants' Union "targeting" of the Bureau is untrue. The Tenants' Union is not a plaintiff in the suit, did not have any prior knowledge of the suit, nor is Ray Ayer a member of the Tenants' Union.

Chizek has attempted to confuse the situation with his claim that proposed reforms would "sink the Housing Bureau." The proposed reforms are intended to improve Housing Inspection Bureau performance; thus, rather than sinking the Bureau, the reforms will perpetuate it. Also implied in Chizek's comments is an attempt to deprive city council members Kathy Edgren and Jeff Epton and tenants advocates Larry Fox and Gary Rothberger of proper credit for their work in developing the reforms. These individuals, as well as Tenants' Union staffpersons, have worked many hours on the city council housing code Revision Committee and Housing Board of Appeals to improve the Inspection Bureau's process and the city's housing code.

Julia Goode, spokesperson for the Tenants' Union City Accountability Project (which wrote this article), says, "Chizek's statements to the "News" prove what we've been saying all along. The bureaucrats have deep biases against tenants. Chizek is incapable of administering the Bureau as it should be run; to assure the health, safety, and preservation of the city housing stock and to defend the quality of life of tenants. Chizek, Donaldson and Yadlosky need to get out of the way so the city can enforce its own laws."

Whose "common sense?" Chizek also told The Ann Arbor News that the city "needs to stop getting our micrometers out to see if there are housing code violations, and start using common sense." This is precisely the current problem; it is not the solution.

For several years, the Housing Inspection Bureau has used "common sense" as the standard for Bureau inspections. In our opinion, "common sense" in this case, however, is defïned as "sense" which is "common" to landlords and bureaucrats, not tenants (or laypeople).

Fred Gruber, spokeslord for the Ann Arbor Apartment Association, a local landlord organization, has repeatedly echoed Chizek's maintenance of the status quo at meetings of the Housing Code Revision Committee. Gruber says, "it is fine to have a 'tight code' as long as we can be flexible in the enforcement." In other words, we should use "common sense" as the basis for enforcing the housing code.

Public policy established from a premise like Gruber's is arbitrary policy which benefits a privileged few and creates excessive bureaucratic power. The Chizek-Gruber logic of public policy establishes two sets of rules. The first set of rules are the city laws. Laws require passage through a public legislative process and are published for all to review. These are the official rules; but, not the "real" rules. The second set of rules are for the privileged knowledge of those in power. These rules are rarely published. The secret rules require that those who benefit from them, landlords and bureaucrats in this case, keep up an image that public law is being enforced. Chizek calis this common sense. Gruber calis it flexible enforcement. Tenants call it bullshit.

The status quo of "common sense" The Bureau's policy of enforcing "common sense" instead of the city's laws has caused tenants many problems, delivered unwarranted financial gain to landlords and contributed to the decay of the city's rental housing stock. Some examples:

Did They Miss a Few at Your Place Too? On Sept. 30, 1985 the city certified a student area rooming house as having no code violations. Five months later, in March 1986, the Bureau issued a report listing 118 code violations. Law? What Law? Limit? What Limit? According to city law a landlord may obtain a waiver of sections of the housing code only through appeal to the Housing Board of Appeals. Bureaucrats for several years violated this restriction by setting up a so-called Administrative Review Committee which granted hundreds of variances to landlords. The Bureau kept no minutes of meetings of the Administrative Review Committee and kept no compilation of variances granted by the Committee. Bureaucrats claim this policy officially ended in January 1986 in response to pressure from tenants and tenants' advocates. Old habits die hard and some current Bureau policies carry on the essence of the administrative variance practice. Fair Representation? There were no tenants on the Housing Board of Appeals (HBA) until February 1986, at which time several HBA members were on the Board in violation of residency and/or term of service restrictions (two still are in violation of term of service restrictions). HBA records variances granted routinely to landlords without regard to limits on HBA power as set by the housing code or minimum requirements needed to qualify for variances. Attacks on Ray Ayer. In August of 1986, according to city housing inspector Ayer's lawsuit, "as a direct result of whistleblower activities, (Ayer) was given a bad evaluation by defendant Yadlosky and was reprimanded and given a five-day suspension." Not content to improperly deprive Ayer of five days pay, city bosses may have leaked news of the disciplinary action to The Ann Arbor News. According to the lawsuit, "Yadlosky created and fabricated the incident giving rise to the reprimand . . . and Chizek administered the punishment"

Whose town is it? Assistant city administrator Leigh Chizek holds the second highest administrative rank in the city. He is a policy maker whose public statements on city hall matter. Unless specifically labeled as personal, his public comments reflect, if not define, the city's official position.

City council member Kathy Edgren, in a memo to Chizek's boss, city administrator Godfrey Collins about Chizek's statements, stated "to publicly disparage a local community organization, as Leigh [Chizek] has done, demonstrates ... a lack of respect for citizen participation in local government." Edgren also expressed deep concern for the possibility that "the negative attitude toward tenant advocates . . . permeates the Housing Inspection Bureau and is reflected in the housing inspection services we provide to the public and in our enforcement of the housing code."

Housing code enforcement is a basic city service in an urban industrial society. Housing code enforcement promotes the health, safety and life quality of tenants and and homeowners and helps preserve buildings. For several years the Housing Inspection Bureau has been, regularly and as a matter of policy, violating the city laws it was established to enforce, as well as contradicting the intent of those laws.

Bureaucrats with deep ties to the development and landlord industries may not like this idea, but housing code enforcement is essentially pro-tenant. The current practice of ignoring the law is clearly pro-landlord. Both positions have their supporters, but bureaucrats are paid to carry out the laws, not manipúlate public power for private gain.

Chizek's use of the city's disciplinary mechanism as a means to attack inspector Ayer for whistleblowing made clear his negative position on bureaucratic reform. The comments to The Ann Arbor News served to document that negative position.

In our opinion, city council will have to remove Chizek, Donaldson, and Yadlosky for threatening to fire Ayer as punishment for Ayer doing his job as it is intended to be done instead of as political influence would have it. Threatening the loss of a job, given current (and projected) unemployment rates, can be as damaging and intimidating as threatening physical violence. This cannot be endorsed as city policy.

The city cannot solve the national housing crisis. The city, however, can end those policies which make the crisis worse locally. In examining how to do that the question is "whose town is it?" must be answered.


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