Code guy trains eye on trouble

Published June 2, 2006

Rene Allen Jr. has an eye for anything broken, piled up or missing.

That's his job as an inspection officer for the city's code enforcement department.

Allen is one of several code inspectors who scour city streets looking for infractions large and small, from overgrown yards to dilapidated houses. Around the water cooler, he's known as the tough guy, the guy who doesn't cut any slack.

He takes the distinction in stride, even with pride. His logic: It's better to deal with problems earlier than later.

Allen, 34, and his crew last week conducted "minisweeps'' as part of a citywide effort to clean up offending homes and businesses, a frequent complaint among residents. They met at Plymouth Park in Tampa Heights and fanned out to the neighborhoods, hitting every street.

A vacant house at 3809 Highland Ave. was the first stop. After receiving several complaints about trash and overgrown weeds, city officials tried to contact the owner but got no response. Area code supervisor Larry Canalejo suspects the owner abandoned the property, making it a free-for-all for homeless people and illegal dumping.

During the sweep, city contractors hauled away a truck filled with garbage and yard waste. The owner will get the bill.

It didn't take code inspectors long to find infractions. For Allen, just about every house on a block of Floribraska Avenue had something amiss.

A pile of tree limbs? No good, Allen says with a huff. Attracts rats and termites.

Broken chain-link fence missing a top pole? No good, either. Too dangerous.

Allen jots down both addresses and the infractions and moves on. He sees chickens behind a business and a car collecting dust with no tags - two more no-nos.

The most frequent violations fall under the "accumulation'' category, as in stuff piled up where it doesn't belong. In many cases, homeowners can get rid of it by calling the city for a special trash pickup. After getting a citation, many do.

Violations come with a warning the first time seeking compliance within three weeks. After that, owners get a certified letter and are subject to a hearing. Depending on the outcome, fines could reach $500 a day.

Allen says most people come into compliance right away. Many times, they don't even realize their property was in violation.

That's understandable. Some of the violations are kind of obscure and until a few years ago haven't been strictly enforced. Take the rule about house numbers. If they aren't at least 3 inches tall and distinguishable from the rest of the house, they don't past muster. Or tents. After being up for more than 30 days, the city deems them hurricane hazards.

Despite his no-nonsense attitude, Allen doesn't always like writing up people. A lot of homeowners, especially senior citizens, want their property to look nice but can't afford to do the work needed. For those, the city has programs to cover costs.

Allen has less sympathy for repeat offenders and people trying to dodge the system. During last week's sweep, he recognized a boat he had cited in North Tampa for having no tag. Apparently, the owner just moved it south, hoping to evade code officials.

Not so fast, Allen says. Gotcha.

And the people with the chickens? Once they saw Allen in his white car labeled CODE ENFORCEMENT, they moved them inside.

No matter, Allen saw them earlier. That's enough to warrant a citation.

The city's efforts appear to be paying off. Allen says he's seen much improvement in six years as a code inspector. The city is collecting more fines and last fall began foreclosing on properties where owners repeatedly violate city codes.

Does the city still get a lot of calls about code enforcement? Absolutely. And they go both ways: people complaining about their neighbors and people complaining about getting citations.

But if the result is a cleaner city, we should all embrace it.

THE LAST DROP: A roving band of trash collectors picks up oversized household items as a community service. For a schedule, call the city's Solid Waste Department at 348-1111.

Susan Thurston can be reached at thurston@sptimes.com or 226-3394.