Rather than demand old homes meet modern property maintenance standards, dozens of technical changes recently adopted by the St. Paul City Council indicate city inspectors must abide by statewide building and fire codes. And those codes for existing homes and rental properties defer to building standards in place at the time of construction — even if that construction is a century old.
For homeowners looking to pass inspection before renting out a house or selling a property, the code changes could add up to hefty savings — in both costs and time.
“I think it’s good for the public to know that with aging housing stock, the quality doesn’t have to always be brought up to current code, which can be virtually impossible or extremely cost prohibitive,” said Mark Lentsch, a St. Paul-based Realtor.
The council decision represents a bit of a win for the Builders Association of Minnesota, which several years ago took a legal case against the city over egress windows as far as the Minnesota Court of Appeals.
“A home that was built in 1974 must meet the 1974 code,” said Remi Stone, an executive vice president with the association. “A local government cannot force a homeowner to bring it up to a code that didn’t exist at the time the home was built. That’s not the way it works.”
The change is potentially sweet relief for landlords who have long complained that city inspectors are overzealous or inconsistent in imposing inspection standards.
For instance, the code amendments adopted by the city council Wednesday allow pre-existing driveways to be maintained as currently constructed — including gravel — unless they are being expanded.
Previously, “the driveways were required to be hard or impervious — blacktop, asphalt or concrete, take your pick,” said Robert Humphrey, a spokesman for the St. Paul Department of Safety and Inspections. “Now you can maintain them as-is as long as they’re not being expanded.”
That’s a bit of a free pass for property owners, but it’s moot when it comes to new construction, such as home additions and alterations, Humphrey said.
WHEN IMPROVEMENTS ARE REQUIRED
“Everything will go back to the historical reference to when that house was built, unless you alter that property,” Humphrey said. “If you alter the property, you have to bring it up to the current code.”
Stone, of the builders association, said that in practice, city inspectors have been adjusting inspections accordingly since her organization fought the city in court five years ago. The council vote makes it official.
“My experience with their department has been that they’re fairly consistent with enforcing the state building code, and the code that was in place … when the building was constructed,” she said. “The city is just making sure that what’s on their books is technically consistent with the law of the state.”
The changes were also applauded by the St. Paul Area Association of Realtors, which noted that easing regulations can improve affordability.
“Homebuyers, sellers and current residents will benefit from a more straightforward application of property maintenance standards that everybody can easily understand,” the group’s president Tina Angell said in a prepared statement.
TWO LEGAL CHALLENGES
A Nov. 18 memo from DSI director Ricardo Cervantes to city council members indicated St. Paul’s written property maintenance code needed to be updated. The move was largely in reaction to two legal challenges: a Minnesota Supreme Court ruling from 2008 (City of Morris v. Sax Investments Inc.) and the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruling from 2012 (Builders Association of Minnesota v. City of St. Paul).
“These rulings have determined that municipalities cannot require existing buildings to meet local property maintenance code standards that were not in effect at the time the property was originally constructed,” Travis Bistodeau, a deputy director for the St. Paul Department of Safety and Inspections, told council members on Wednesday.
“The city of St. Paul is not alone in this challenge,” Bistodeau said. “Many municipalities across the state who had previously developed their own property maintenance standards are adjusting their ordinances and practices, as well.”
Council President Russ Stark later said that given St. Paul’s relatively older housing stock, the city’s property maintenance codes are stricter than the state’s for a good reason: public safety. But discussions with Cervantes and the city attorney’s office left little doubt about the course of action.
“We had little choice but to comply,” Stark said.
THE CASE OF THE EGRESS WINDOW
For St. Paul, the latest changes started, arguably, with old windows.
In 2012, the Minnesota Court of Appeals effectively ruled against St. Paul’s insistence on having homeowners bring even century-old window openings up to modern size and safety standards. The Builders Association of Minnesota filed suit.
The Builders Association of Minnesota argued that the policy, which was intended to make it easier to flee a house during a fire or another emergency, actually made properties less safe. The policy effectively forced landlords to cut into concrete or stucco walls to make window openings larger in their rental properties.
As a result of the policy, rather than replace windows that had been painted shut, many homeowners simply decided to skip costly replacements and leave the old windows as-is.
The three-judge court of appeals panel found that the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry adopted the international building code, residential code and fire code with the expectation of creating uniformity in statewide standards. The appellate opinion frowned on the city’s decision to go beyond the state code, noting that the state opted for uniformity for a reason.
The Minnesota Supreme Court came to a similar conclusion in 2008 when the city of Morris tangled with a residential landlord over whether city or state codes should govern bathroom ventilation, egress window covers and ground fault interrupters in his rental property.
St. Paul officials said the code amendments will help clear up confusion for the public.
“It’s harder to enforce, but we’re happy to abide by the changes, and we have been,” said Humphrey, the DSI spokesman.