Mix student housing with a historic neighborhood and there’s the potential for lots of housing violations. But University Hill around USC has one of the best records of all those around campus. The secret? A vigilant neighborhood association that does frequent walk-throughs and doesn’t hesitate to let city officials know of any violations. Not everyone is happy.
By: Ashley Chonka
Nov. 14 2013
On one street in University Hill, you can have a high-rise condominium across from a half-million-dollar Colonial Revival house that is right next to a rent-subsidized apartment complex. USC student renters mix with homeowners that often are professionals, like lawyers, and retirees.
How do you keep parts of such a diverse college neighborhood from becoming a slum? The University Hill Neighborhood Association’s answer is vigilance.
Compared to other neighborhoods surrounding USC, University Hill, bounded roughly by Pickens, Laurens, Gervais and Blossom streets, has fewer housing code violations, said David Hatcher, who oversees Columbia’s property maintenance division. Walk-throughs of the area every couple of months by the association’s executive council are one reason.
From uncut grass to molding wood – when council members see a violation, they make sure Hatcher knows about it.
“David Hatcher is always on top of the violations. Once we tell him about them, he takes care of it in a timely fashion,” said Kathryn Fenner, the executive council’s vice president.
Hatcher usually gets a report with six to 12 violations, most of them at rental properties or abandoned buildings, said John Magill, head of the neighborhood’s code enforcement committee.
The association is so vigilant because of the high proportion of students and renters in general. Almost 74 percent of the occupied housing units in the neighborhood are rentals, according to the 2010 census.
“They don’t know the ins-and-outs of maintaining a property, unlike owners,” Fenner said. “Just like cars, you don’t take care of a rental the same way as one you own.”
The patrols started 10 to 15 years ago to make sure the properties were adhering to the International Building Code, said John Stucker, the executive council’s immediate past president. “There were many buildings that weren’t being well-maintained,” he said.
For instance, if there’s trash on the lawn outside a rental house after a student party, the owner gets a violation much like a parking ticket and usually has 14 days to clean up or face a possible $500 fine for each violation.
There were 24 violations during 12 months ending in September, according to the city’s annual neighborhood code enforcement violations report. Hatcher said most owners clean up in time.
But dentist Staci Gaffos, who owns a rental property on Laurens Street, was fined $1,010 earlier this year for chipped paint, rotten wood, a missing brick on a chimney and a broken window.
“They have the right to snoop around your property,” said Gaffos, who had been given an extension because of the summer’s rains and who showed the judge pictures of the cleaned-up area. “I understand how they feel, to keep the neighborhood in good shape, but I did everything I could.”
But Stucker, who lives next door, said Gaffos could have been fined $1,500 and got a break.
“Vigilance is the eternal cost of maintaining a good neighborhood,” Stucker said.
Students, however, don’t seem very familiar with the law that could get their landlords in trouble.
“I don’t know anything about it to be honest,” said Joseph Jamison, a former Greene Street resident and one of four current and former students interviewed. All said they didn’t know anything about the law or code enforcement in general.
Executive council members say that’s a problem, and they plan to go door-to-door distributing notices to remind students of the most common violations.
“They’re going to be simple and will just make sure they know how to keep their properties clean and how to recycle right,” Fenner said. “That way we can all be on the same page.”