WIEGAND: Who's monitoring home construction?

January 30, 2010

About 18 months ago, I watched as the entire exterior of an expensive condo on the Central Canal—originally built in 1996—was rebuilt. Among the issues: There was no building paper (Tyvek) under the siding, treated lumber wasn’t used on the exposed porches, and neither was there any drainage. As a result, much of the exterior rotted and had to be replaced at a huge expense.

Certainly it raises questions about the quality of the original construction, but it raises a much larger issue about the permitting and inspection provided by the city of Indianapolis. How could a building on a high-profile site—and within blocks of the City-County Building— be built with such obvious defects and go undetected?

Unfortunately, this wasn’t an isolated incident. Residential construction and remodeling work in Indianapolis often happens without inspections. One such project on the near-east side became known as the “tall house.” Permits were issued but no inspections were done by the city until the contractor had done egregiously faulty work on the house—including adding a fourth floor, thereby causing a flagrant zoning violation—that triggered outcry from the neighborhood.

After a heated multiyear battle with the city, residents got the height of the home reduced to 35 feet, but the structure remains uninhabitable, unsellable and a blight on the neighborhood—a monument to failed oversight.

It’s not that a few projects fell through the cracks of the system; it’s that the current system is virtually non-functional. In my own neighborhood, a recent call to the Mayor’s Action Center regarding work without a permit finally got a response 90 days later, and even then the inspector failed to notice that no permits had been issued. A stop-work order should happen within four hours after a problem is reported, without requiring a follow-up to the mayor’s liaison; an entire house can be built in 90 days.

This isn’t just an issue for the immediate property owner. Code enforcement protects future property owners, lien holders and occupants as well. Poor-quality work can mean expensive repairs later. It can also mean an unsafe structure or property that can’t ever be financed by a traditional lender—all of which add to the problem of vacant and abandoned property.

The lack of code enforcement also discourages much-needed private investment in nearby properties. Who wants to invest in a home that’s near a cobbled-up mess?

Residential construction permitting and inspection is front and center now because of a confluence of issues: Mayor Greg Ballard is reorganizing the division of code enforcement. He is also moving to increase fees in an attempt to make these services self-supporting. Commercial property inspection has become a priority. Meanwhile, vacant and abandoned property plagues Marion County.

According to its own press release, the city was called out for its weak permitting and inspection of commercial, industrial and multifamily construction. An audit by the New Jersey-based Insurance Services Office revealed too few inspectors, a lack of inspector certification, low inspection rates and no final audit to issue a certificate of occupancy. Because of an increase in the insurance risk rating, steps have been taken to fix this problem. It’s not clear that the fixes extend to residential construction as well.

It’s easy to imagine residential permitting and inspection taking a back seat when funds are tight and the city is forced to make fixing the commercial side of things a priority.

To remain economically viable, the city must focus on transforming existing vacant and under-used property to its highest and best use. Doing that requires private investment, and private investment requires functional construction oversight. Let’s hope the newly organized Office of Code Enforcement gets it right and doesn’t sacrifice residential enforcement in a shortsighted effort to become self-supporting.•


Wiegand is information technology director for a local company. He sits on the steering committee for the Emerson Avenue Corridor Gateway Project and is active in his Emerson Heights neighborhood on the east side. He previously spent eight years at Eastside Community Investments, a neighborhood development organization.


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