How Texas cities investigate apartment problems

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This aerial view shows search and rescue personnel working on site after the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside, north of Miami Beach, on June 24, 2021. (Photo by CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images)

This aerial view shows search and rescue personnel working on site after the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside, north of Miami Beach, on June 24, 2021. (Photo by CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — In the wake of the Miami-area condo collapse that killed nearly 100 people, KXAN reached out to cities across Texas to see how each handles safety inspections at residential properties, along with the agencies tasked with investigating complaints and making recommendations. In the Lone Star State, we found, in many cases, cities put the responsibility to find problems on residents. 

In Austin, city leaders take a “reactive” approach to investigating problems at residential properties. Residents must first call 311 to alert code enforcement. Repeat offenders, with multiple code violations, are put on a list and monitored annually to make sure issues are fixed.

Here’s how other cities handle inspections:  

Arlington

“Multi-family inspections are conducted annually in addition to inspections that are done based on complaints.

If a structural issue was identified through a complaint or Code Compliance inspection, a notice of violation would be issued. The City’s Building Inspections Department would be involved in permitting and inspections of the work required to address the structural issue. Additionally, the Fire Department may become involving in the review process, depending on the severity of the issue.

City of Arlington Multi-Family Inspection Program information here

Dallas

“The City of Dallas completes comprehensive inspections of multi-family structures such as apartment complexes and condominium complexes at least once every three years, beginning five years after initial construction. These inspections entail confirmation of Certificate of Occupancy accuracy, confirmation of current multi-tenant registration/pool permits, and physical inspection. The physical inspection entails a comprehensive overview of the exterior of the property, its common areas, and interior inspection of 10% of a properties dwelling units (per tax parcel [owner occupied units excluded]). This process is detailed in Ch. 27-42 of our city Ordinance. You can find the ordinance here.”  

El Paso

“The city of El Paso’s Planning and Inspections Department conducts inspections of one- and two-family residential buildings and multi-family residential building (apartments) at the time a building is issued a permit and during the construction of the building.

Residential buildings are inspected based on the requirements of the adopted International Residential Code, Section R109, in addition to the IRC, the International Building Code, Fire, Plumbing, Mechanical and Energy Conservation Codes as well as the National Electrical Codes.

The City Municipal Code does not have a requirement for a recertification of a building based on the age of building. However, building owners are strongly encouraged to maintain their buildings at all times and if an inspection is required a request may be made to the City for investigative inspection.

The City’s Fire Marshal’s office conducts yearly inspections for operational licenses such as hazardous material, high pile storage for warehouses, places of assembly, and commercial fire systems.”

Fort Worth

“We inspect construction associated with building permits as it occurs for compliance with the adopted building codes but have no inspection program for buildings based on age. 

Staff is looking at the current policies to see if any modifications are needed. Staff is looking at current inspection schedules to see if anything needs to change.  

Right now the inspections are only done when staff is made aware of a possible issue with building code compliance.”

Houston

“The Houston Permitting Center’s Building Code Enforcement inspects buildings prior to a Certificate of Occupancy being issued and will address structural concerns when brought to their attention by either the Fire Marshall or through a 311 complaint. Building Code Enforcement does not perform annual inspections on high-rises or condos after a Certificate of Occupancy has been issued. 

Apartment buildings are inspected every 4 years by a Multi-family Habitability Team. 

NOTE: If the Fire Marshall has structural concerns, he will bring in the Houston Permitting Center’s Building Code Enforcement to inspect the building. Proactive or annual inspections on high-rises or condos do not take place in Houston (it is only when there is a concern or complaint to 311). 

Apartments are a different story and get a habitability inspection every four years.

A great tool for information about the Houston Permitting Center Multi-Family Habitability team can be found here. It breaks down the inspections and provides an FAQ.”

Plano 

“We inspect all buildings during construction through out Building Inspections Department as part of the permit process. When a building is completed and all inspections finished a certificate of occupancy is issued to occupy the building. We do not inspect buildings after a certain age. 

The building product in Miami and along the coastal areas includes high rise condominiums. A recertification process is in place there due to the environmental concerns buildings face in the area. The sea and salt water air can damage a building accelerating a rusting process for steel and affecting concrete. Plano doesn’t
have this type of environment nor did we have high rise residential buildings of this type until two years ago. We now have two high rise buildings which are residential occupancies. We understand that several counties in Florida have a 40 year building re-inspection program. We do not have a requirement for this in place. However, it is possible that such a program could be evaluated if deemed necessary in the future.” – Selso Mata, Plano’s Chief Building Official

San Antonio

“In San Antonio we do not have an inspection requirement as the one you mention. Our code requires owners to maintain their buildings in a safe manner to ensure accordance with safety codes.” 

International Code Council 

“On behalf of the entire International Code Council family, we extend our deepest condolences to all of those affected by the Surfside building collapse, which was a terrible, tragic event.

The Code Council is the developer of the most widely used set of building safety codes and standards in the world, the International Codes (I-Codes). The I-Codes are updated on a three-year basis to incorporate new technology, approaches, information, and lessons learned. They require existing buildings to be maintained in good repair and structurally sound with structural members shown to be free from deterioration in order to support the imposed loads and create safe conditions. In the U.S., the specific rules and regulations related to inspections and
building re-certifications are determined by the local and state jurisdictions.

We emphasize to all communities the importance of adopting modern building codes and stress the
critical importance of continued inspection and enforcement to keep buildings and their occupants safe and healthy.

The Code Council and the National Institute of Building Sciences are convening an in-person panel discussion in the wake of the Surfside, Florida building collapse. Hosted by the Building Officials Association of Florida, this dialogue will focus on how communities monitor the safety of existing buildings, what guidance exists for
building owners, and how future catastrophic events can be avoided. We will not be looking into the causation of the building collapse but instead focusing on the broader questions related to frequency of inspections, structural safety,
maintenance, and the application of current building codes and standards. The goal of the discussion is to establish a channel for the building safety community to have a dialogue and develop information that could inform policy
makers as they consider questions raised by the tragic collapse of Champlain Towers South.

The Code Council has always advocated for safe, affordable, and sustainable buildings and communities – which includes the consistent maintenance of existing buildings. To meet this, the I-Codes require existing buildings to be maintained in good repair and structurally sound with structural members shown to be free from
deterioration in order to support the imposed loads and create safe conditions. For the specific language, please refer to the International Property Maintenance Code (IPMC) Section 304.”  -Whitney Doll, ICC executive vice president of
communications and strategic initiatives.” 

City of Austin Development Services Department  

“The City of Austin follows national code standards and the City’s land development code to help ensure building integrity from design through construction. A building permit is required before constructing, altering or improving any building or structure, including high rises. The process of acquiring a permit includes an extensive plan review process, with a focus on protecting life, health, safety, welfare and property. Large commercial structures typically require multiple permits, each with specific inspection requirements.

In 2017, the City of Austin established a dedicated structural review team, whose primary focus is to examine a limited list of project types for public safety issues while ensuring sound engineering principles. Licensed engineers perform structural reviews before construction. See Structural Review Submittal Checklist.

Identifying which inspections are needed begins in plan review, and the inspections occur throughout construction to ensure required standards and approved plans are being followed.

Structural inspection requirements are established by the International Building Code and the material standards it references (e.g., American Institute of Steel Construction, American Concrete Institute). These codes and standards dictate requirements for materials, inspection frequency and other facets of structural oversight.

In addition to conducting numerous inspections throughout construction, City staff also reviews special third-party inspections that require specific expertise.

The city requires design professionals, like engineers and architects, to tell us what 3rd party inspections are required by submitting a Statement of Special Inspections. What this means is the design professional is indicating within the development process what types of inspections need be reviewed, like materials, types, extent and frequency. Then the Contractor is responsible for submitting reports that the inspections are completed and have passed. Finally, the City provides oversight of the entire process. This process is defined under the 2015 International Building Code, Chapter 17.

The City of Austin has departments who review plans and perform inspections during the development process, and departments who respond to complaints and ensure compliance once construction is complete. The Development Services Department reviews and approves plans and performs inspections throughout the development process. There is not currently a code for frequency of inspecting existing structures once development is complete. Two City departments, Austin Code and Austin Fire, respond to complaints and take necessary steps to address deficiencies if they arise. Property Maintenance is a shared responsibility between the City, property owners and tenants. We encourage tenants to speak to their landlords if they observe structural damages. If these are not addressed in a timely manner, they can also call Austin 3-1-1 to report the potential code violation. By reporting it, the City becomes aware and an inspector is assigned to investigate and bring the property into compliance.” -Robbie Searcy, Public Information Specialist Sr., City of Austin Development Services Department

READ NEXT: Why does Austin have a ‘reactive’ approach to apartment inspections?

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