When Shane Dotson receives a complaint that a home in Rutherford County doesn’t have properly functioning plumbing, there’s not much he can do.

He can follow up on the complaint and make a visit to the property. He can carefully document every leaky toilet and broken water heater on his inspection report sheet. He can take photos of the home for the county’s records and offer his sympathies to the tenant.

But Dotson, who is the director of building inspections for the county, can’t require the landlord or homeowner to fix any of those plumbing problems. Unless the home has electrical hazards or otherwise poses a danger to human life, his hands are tied.

That’s because Rutherford is one of 73 counties in North Carolina that doesn’t have a minimum housing code at the county level.

“We’ve been called out on complaints for sewer running out into the field, for sewers not connected, people having homes where they’re using the restroom out in the woods,” Dotson said. 

“We go as far as we can with that. We bring in environmental health to help deal with that process. We do our best, but we do not have an ordinance in place.”

The homes Dotson sees on those calls aren’t anomalies or isolated incidents.

An analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data from 2018 shows that an estimated 12,544 North Carolina homes lack some form of plumbing, such as hot or cold piped water, a functioning bathtub or shower, or a functioning toilet. Statewide, that number is down approximately 24.5% since the Census Bureau’s previous data collection in 2013. 

But as cases of the coronavirus continue to rise around the state, a lack of proper plumbing in any amount of North Carolina homes is perhaps a more pressing issue than ever before: Without running water or a working sink, hand-washing is impossible.

And unless a county has a minimum housing code in place, people living in homes without proper plumbing have few places to turn as the pandemic rages on.

Under state law, North Carolina counties and municipalities have the option to establish minimum housing codes, but it isn’t a requirement. 

When a county, like Rutherford, doesn’t have a minimum housing code, there’s nothing county employees can legally do to stop a home from falling into disrepair. They can only step in when the home is in such bad shape that it is “unfit for human habitation.” That’s the first and only time that they can require that the landlord or homeowner make necessary repairs or condemn the house.

“It is optional in North Carolina for a local government to enact a minimum housing code,” said Tyler Mulligan, professor at the UNC Chapel Hill School of Government. 

“If you don’t have a minimum housing code, then all you have is a set of statutes to condemn unsafe buildings. A minimum housing code is designed to get at the problem a little sooner and address factors that make a building unfit for human habitation.”

Generally, urban and suburban counties are more likely to enact a code because of the links between substandard housing and higher crime rates as wells as poorer public health outcomes, Mulligan said.

“There is a desire in these urban counties and urban cities to avoid the negative externalities of deteriorated housing,” he said. “When someone lives in substandard housing, it doesn’t just affect them in an urban area; it also affects their neighbors, thus justifying a public response.”

In those counties, minimum housing codes seem to be doing the trick.

Since 1970, North Carolina counties with minimum housing codes have generally reduced the number of homes with inadequate plumbing at a faster rate than counties without minimum housing codes.

Charlotte, the county seat of Mecklenburg County, has its own minimum housing code, which has been in place since 1962. The code specifically outlines the plumbing standards that homes in the city must meet, including “no leaks shall be in a shower stall floor and/or wall” and “facilities for furnishing adequate hot water to each tub or shower, lavatory and kitchen sink,” among other requirements.

Mike Jenkins, Charlotte’s code enforcement coordinator, has seen firsthand the positive impact that the code has had in addressing inadequate plumbing in the city. 

Jenkins started working for the city in 1985, when there were homes in parts of Charlotte and its 2-mile extraterritorial jurisdiction that didn’t have indoor plumbing and relied solely on outhouses.

Now, Jenkins said he and his team rarely run into homes like that, though they still see homes with plumbing issues.

“Every once in a while, we’ll run across a house — very rarely, actually — that doesn’t have indoor plumbing, that has an outhouse,” Jenkins said. 

“We do see a good number of plumbing cases, leaky pipes. We do see septic systems that are failed. There’s still a few of those around.”

Because Charlotte has a minimum housing code, Jenkins and his team have the authority to step in and require that those leaky pipes and failing septic systems, as well as any other violations to the code, be fixed by the homeowner or landlord.

While the standards for minimum housing codes can vary from county to county or city to city, the enforcement procedures are set forth by state law and are the same for every local government.

“The standards can change, other than the ones that are read to you (in the state statute),” Mulligan said. “Then there’s enforcement. And enforcement is the same across the entire state; it has to use the procedures that are put into the statute.”

After inspecting the home, the county or city employee determines whether repairs can be made or if the home is fit to be condemned.

If the homeowner or landlord can afford to make the necessary repairs or demolish the home, the public official orders them to do so in a set amount of time. If the homeowner or landlord cannot afford to make repairs or demolish the home, the local government can make the repairs and set the cost of the work done as a lien on the property.

A 2017 report published by the UNC Chapel Hill Center for Urban and Regional Studies suggests that local government actions, such as implementing minimum housing codes, are some of the most needed solutions to substandard housing conditions around the state.

But the possible cost of repairs and demolition associated with minimum housing codes is one reason that local governments, especially those in smaller and rural areas, might opt out of implementing a code.

“It can be a pretty expensive process for a government, and time consuming,” Mulligan said. “And that makes governments cautious about using this power, but they will use it when a situation is bad enough.”

Danny Searcy, Rutherford County’s planning director, said via email that county budget constraints are a leading reason that Rutherford County hasn’t implemented a minimum housing code. 

“After some research of potential budget impacts of an ordinance that included condemnation and removal of structures at a cost of several thousand dollars per incident across a 565-plus-square-mile county, it could become a rather daunting task in an already tight budget,” Searcy said. 

Searcy also said citizens of Rutherford County have historically been opposed to planning ordinances, and previous attempts at implementing countywide land use and zoning regulations have failed, though a municipal minimum housing code does exist in Forest City, the county’s largest incorporated town.

“The local citizenry input has been abundantly clear, and while considering minimum housing code, one may speculate that the lack of zoning and comprehensive land use bears a factor,” Searcy said.

In counties without a minimum housing code, where county officials can’t require that repairs be made, homeowners, landlords and tenants are left to rely mostly on local nonprofit organizations to address plumbing concerns in their homes.

In Rutherford County, one of the nonprofits addressing the need is the Rutherford Housing Partnership, which provides urgent home repairs to low-income, elderly and disabled homeowners. 

Mel Ailiff, the organization’s executive director, said the organization currently has 111 applications for repairs on file. Of those applications, 32 request some sort of plumbing repairs, which could range from installing a handicapped-accessible shower to connecting the home to running water. 

Ailiff said a minimum housing code would help address some of the issues that RHP can’t, since it would legally require homes to have proper plumbing, and the county could step in to shoulder some of the burden.

“Right now, the situation is that some homes are in such bad condition that people really shouldn’t be living in them because it’s not that they’re dangerous, but they’re not safe for the families, just due to the health hazards of living in those conditions,” Ailiff said. “But there’s really nothing the county can do to fix it.”

While the organization tries to assist as many applicants as possible, the reality is that nonprofit organizations don’t have enough funding or resources to fix every issue in every home — though the state does offer some resources for those organizations, mostly through the N.C. Housing Finance Agency.

The agency was established in 1973 by the N.C. General Assembly to provide additional support to North Carolinians whose housing needs are not met by the traditional market.

The agency receives funding from a variety of federal and state sources and administers the N.C. Housing Trust Fund, which is financed annually by the General Assembly and is considered by some as the state’s most flexible funding resource for housing. 

The agency offers various grant and loan programs to bolster the abilities of counties and nonprofits to repair homes in their locales, including the Urgent Repair Program, which is available to elderly and disabled homeowners around the state whose annual income is below 50% of their county’s annual median income.

The program is funded through the Housing Trust Fund and received $4.5 million in the 2020 fiscal year. Individual counties and local organizations can apply for up to $100,000 annually through the program, or $200,000 if the county is part of a council of government or if the organization serves more than one county. Counties that receive funding then allocate the money to perform repairs at individual homes. 

Individuals served through the program can receive a lifetime maximum of $10,000 in repairs for their homes, which is typically enough to either make one big repair, such as installing a new roof or an entirely new bathroom, or a few small repairs, such as fixing leaky pipes or installing a new water heater.

The program typically serves between 600 and 700 homeowners each year. Last year, the program funded repairs in 52 counties, performed by 37 local governments or community partners.

Rutherford County has a strong track record of applying for and receiving funding through the Housing Finance Agency. Searcy said the county has annually received Urgent Repair Funding for at least a decade and typically partners with the Rutherford Housing Partnership to screen applications and perform the repairs.

But even with resources like the Urgent Repair Program in place and nonprofits doing the groundwork, thousands of North Carolinians each year are unable to receive the help they need — and without minimum housing codes in place to prevent homes from falling into disrepair, some county employees, like Dotson in Rutherford County, are worried that things won’t get much better.

Dotson knows implementing a minimum housing code would be an uphill battle. It would take years to find and repair all the homes in the county that lack some form of plumbing, and it would likely be met with backlash from some landlords and homeowners. 

But to him, it would be a worthwhile battle to fight.

“I think if they took it in baby steps, even if it’s a five-year or a 10-year plan, anything’s better than not having it,” Dotson said.

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