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08/26/08: What’s a Housing Code?

HOUSING COUNSEL

By Benny L. Kass

Q: I recently read that the Director of the District's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Office (DCRA) recently fired more than half of Washington 's housing-code inspectors. I have often wondered what a “housing code” is, and whether this is different from a “building-code” violation. Can you explain?

A: This is a very complex issue. It is my understanding that most municipalities – such as the City of Washington , and counties in Maryland and Virginia – have some form of codes which attempt to regulate construction, as well as to assure that basic human qualities of housing life are preserved and maintained.

These Codes are enforced by inspectors in the various jurisdiction. Their basic function is to make sure that homes (including condominiums and cooperative apartments) are both safe and healthy.

For example, in Montgomery County , Maryland , the Department of Housing and Community Affairs (DHCA) has the responsibility to preserve and improve housing and property standards. In a “Guide to Code Enforcement”, DHCA lists a number of issues on which their department has jurisdiction, such as:

  • accumulations of solid waste, including garbage, medical waste, debris from building construction, and abandoned vehicles;
  • grass and weeds in excess of 12 inches;
  • deteriorated structures, including loose or leaking gutters, missing or dilapidated roof shingles, or cracked and chipped concrete walkways or steps.

For many years, there were three major building codes in the United States . In the west and midwest, there was the Uniform Building Code (UBC). The Standard Building Code (SBC) was common in the southeastern states, while the rest of the country used the Building Officials Code Administration International – commonly referred to as the BOCA Code.

However, in recent years, these codes have been consolidated into the International Building Code (IBC) and the International Residential Code (IRC). This latter code – which applies to one and two-family homes – is quite extensive, and is comprised of 42 chapters and numerous other exhibits and appendices.

These Codes are periodically updated, and requires local legislative approval.

The International Code Council publishes these Codes. The stated purpose of the IRC “is to provide minimum requirements to safeguard the public safety, health and general welfare, through affordability, structural strength, means of egress facilities, ... light and ventilation, energy conservation and safety to life and property from fire and other hazards attributed to the built environment.”

The IRC can be purchased from the Code Council at http://www.iccsafe.org/cs.

Note, however, the words “minimum requirements”. There is a lot of confusion about the effectiveness of Code enforcement. For example, tenants believe that their landlords are responsible for all problems within the rented apartment (or house). However, in a question and answer format published by DCRA, it was pointed out that tenants can also be cited for violating housing codes. According to the DCRA response:

“Tenants can be and are issued Housing Violation Notices for unsanitary conditions. The law dictates that tenants have a responsibility to maintain and clean the apartment, to use all the electrical, gas, plumbing and heating equipment properly. Landlords have the right to ask for ...inspections of an apartment if they think its' not being maintained properly – but they must have evidence.

Of course, if there are not sufficient inspectors, this is an academic statement.

In researching this difficult area, I found some helpful information published by Criterium Engineers, located in Portland, Me (www.criterium-engineers.com). They published a number of “myths” about housing codes, and with their permission, I am presenting some of them here:

“Myth : It doesn't meet code. That is a broad, sweeping statement that is often inaccurate, since the subject in question may not even be required to meet code.

“Myth: All homes must comply with current building codes. In fact, a home need only comply with the building codes that were applicable when the home was built or when substantial renovations were undertaken, not current code. And there may not have been any codes when the house was built.

Myth: if my home doesn't ‘meet code', it must be unsafe. That depends on the violation. In most cases, non-compliance is minor... However, in come cases, non-compliance can mean a hazard.

If you suspect that the apartment in which you live may have housing violations, or if your next door neighbor is building (or adding) something that is questionable, you have the right to contact the local enforcement agency in the jurisdiction where your property is located. Hopefully, if they have sufficient inspectors on staff, within a reasonable period of time your complaint will be investigated. Should violations be found, citations will be issued to the appropriate person, and unless those issues are corrected within the stated period of time on the citation, the government will have the right to pursue legal and administration action.

Private structural engineers can also assist, especially when potential major damage is a concern. For example, when new construction is contemplated, which is right next door to your house, you should retain an engineer to periodically inspect to make sure that no damage will occur to your house.

I was also curious as to whether there is a distinction between “building codes” and “housing codes”. According to Alan Mooney, President of Criterium Engineers, “there is no universally accepted clear distinction. In general, I would interpret ‘building' codes to be related to the building itself (safety and construction details) while a ‘housing' code is related to the use of a building as housing and is intended for those who own and manage housing.... Housing agencies would have housing codes while municipal building inspection departments have building codes.”

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