Contractors scrambling to keep up with new rental inspection program in Oelwein

Published: Jul. 24, 2019 at 9:32 PM CDT
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The city of Oelwein is finding itself busier than expected after starting a new rental housing inspection program in March.

City Administrator Dylan Mulfinger said the city established the program after taking in complaints from tenants, neighbors and other community members. Meanwhile, the number of renters in the city is rising.

“Just like every other city in Iowa, we’re dealing with quite a bit of a housing shortage and houses that are not up to really a standard of living that we’re hoping to meet within our community,” he said.

Over the next three years, the city’s two inspectors plan to visit all 800-plus rental units in Oelwein, inspecting a third of the total each year.

That wasn’t the original plan, however.

“We kind of anticipated that we would try to get all the rental inspections done in our first year of every property, but we got slowed down as we realized that we were going to be going back to these properties quite a bit,” Mulfinger said.

Mulfinger said the reason for returning to so many properties is that many of them aren’t up to code.

Under the inspection program, the city gives property owners 14 days’ notice that inspectors are coming. Those inspectors check out the inside and outside of homes, noting different types of violations.

Mulfinger said inspectors have visited about half of this years’ rental units, and 90 percent of them have failed the initial inspection.

“Some of the issues we’re seeing is just outdated outlets that need to be brought back up to code, and we’re seeing light fixtures that are broken, and we’re seeing windows that are inoperable, and all those things needs to be fixed in order for that to pass code,” he said.

Those issues are what the city deems minor violations, and property owners have 60 days to repair them before inspectors return.

Major violations, like smoke and carbon monoxide detectors that are missing or don’t work, electrical wiring that shows signs of failure, and heating systems that don’t operate in the winter, are taken more seriously.

“We provide a one-day notice, or sometimes, within the same day, that repairs have to be made,” Mulfinger said.

He added that inspectors have placarded more than 10 rental units since March, meaning they’re not safe enough to live in their current state, but the city said it’s not because of those major violations.

“We have seen some homes that are not fit for occupancy based on other factors,” Mulfinger said.

Mulfinger said the city didn’t anticipate having to return to so many properties, but he expects those re-inspection numbers will dwindle after the first three years when he believes the type of work will shift to maintenance.

However, all those inspections and failing grades have boosted business for local contractors.

“It’s a busy, stressful time,” said Roger Tegeler of Tegeler Construction, which is based out of nearby Maynard.

In the last month-and-a-half, Tegeler Construction has taken on five new jobs to fix up rental units in Oelwein, and it's not alone in busyness.

“I know there are some guys that have said they can’t squeeze anything more,” Tegeler said.

The contractor was working on a home for rent just a few blocks from city hall on Wednesday, and he needed to finish repairs by next week, in time for a follow-up inspection.

“It’s been good for business, but it does get a little stressful because they have a deadline to get done,” he said.

With the rate of inspections expected to remain the same over the next two-and-a-half years, Tegeler also expects the amount of work to be just as much.

“I’ve actually had some people call me from other sections of town, knowing their places need to be inspected, and they know certain things don’t have everything quite up to code … and they’re saying, ‘Can you get these things done before the inspection comes?’” he said.

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