AUSTIN, Texas — Property owners across the state are dealing with an increase in complaints since the storm. Many of these properties had problems long before February’s freeze.

In most Texas cities, the local code departments have a registration program for landlords with a high number of building code violations.

In Austin, there are 74 properties in the Code Department’s repeat offender program. The Austin Code Department Repeat Offender Program was implemented in 2013 as a way to regulate properties with numerous complaints and infrastructure issues.

Johnny Serna is one of eight inspectors with the ROP. Spectrum News got to tag along with him during his inspections.

This apartment complex Serna is inspecting was put in the program in 2016. The 18-unit complex has had a total of 58 violations.

So how do properties make the “naughty list?” There’s a two-five-two criteria:

  • Either two or more separate notices of violations with no correction
  • Five or more notices of violations issues on separate days
  • Or two or more court citations

Properties registered with the program are put on a two-year plan. The “offenders” are subject to annual fees and inspections, like the one Serna is doing today.

With a background in construction, Serna knows he way around a building. During his inspection… Serna found numerous violations, inside and out.

Most residents here didn’t want to go on camera out of fear of retribution from their landlord, but say they’ve had a lot of problems. One woman was moving out because she says the conditions were unbearable. 

To complete the program, there can’t be any violations within the two-year period. If there are numerous violations without correction, further actions, such as suspending properties from renting to new tenants.

Residents told us they didn’t even know their complex was a repeat offender until that day. All properties are required to display their ROP registration in a common area. The sign must include emergency phone number and how to report code violations.

There was no sign to be found anywhere on the property Serna was inspecting. 

“That is something I am going to cite and ask the owner to go ahead and post those emergency numbers,” Serna said.

Despite all these regulations and diligence from inspectors like Serna, many renters are still waiting months for repairs. Of the more than 117 properties that have been in then program since it started, 44 have completed the program.

A 2020 audit found, while well intended, the ROP “does not to ensure renters are living in properties that meet minimum health and safety standards.” It concluded ROP is not escalating enforcement such as suspensions or court citations when property owners frequently fail to correct violations.

Sterna says, as an inspector, he can only enforce the current laws.

“We’re bound by Texas law. We would love to see things move a lot quicker, but that’s for the law makers and we’re bound by the rules that they set,” he said. “We would love to see immediate compliance but that’s not always the case.”

When the audit was released, the program had only issued one court citation in 2015 and 2020 was the first year they issued a suspension. Now a spokesperson says they have issued nine suspensions.

The audit also found the process used to identify properties is inefficient and does not always result in all eligible properties becoming part of the ROP when they should. In addition, large properties do not pay their proportionate share of the costs which leads to small properties and the public paying a disproportionate share of the costs to manage the program. Austin Code has agreed to fix these issues and others.