News 8 Investigates: Condemned Homes – Part 3

City building inspectors explain how they ensure safe housing.

La Crosse’s chief building inspector, David Reinhart, has been inspecting properties in La Crosse for 12 years. His job is to make sure people have a safe place to live.

Safety is also a concern of the La Crosse Fire Department.

“Our goal, obviously, is to prevent fires from happening,” said Chief Gregg Cleveland, of the La Crosse Fire Department.

Well-maintained buildings that are up to code can be the first line of defense.

“We can have some fires that might be related to electrical issues. We might have them related to some building issues. And prior to today, the fire department really had no input so to speak on construction of buildings,” said Cleveland.

Now, the fire department has absorbed the building and inspection department to form the new La Crosse Fire Department Division of Fire Prevention and Building Safety.

“It was to combine the departments to make us more efficient,” said Reinhart. “Get out and do more inspections and help the city out.”

“Really want we’re trying to do is increase the level of code enforcement so that we can get out into the neighborhoods and identify, especially those properties that are chronically …have poor conditions or have violations or have problems,” said La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat.

La Crosse currently has eight city inspectors. There are four building inspectors, a plumbing inspector, an electrical inspector, a code enforcement technician and the chief inspector.

“The four building inspectors have four different sections of the city for their permits. Electrical and plumbing have the entire city. And then maintenance districts are split up into six different districts for the plumbing, electrical and four building inspectors,” said Reinhart.

The building inspectors do most of their rental inspections between November and March when they aren’t busy inspecting new construction projects built in the summer and fall.

“During a rental inspection, or a vacant home inspection, they look for life safety issues,” said Reinhart. “Open wiring, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, venting for …if there is a gas water heater or a gas furnace, exiting issues, covers on outlets, things of that nature.”

But the chief inspector said homes aren’t condemned unless there is a major life-threatening safety issue or utilities are cut off.

When inspectors aren’t performing their mandatory inspections on rental properties, they head out onto the streets.

“They should be going through their areas and writing up any garbage or cars or any municipal ordinance violations,” said Reinhart.

“We’ve really tried to push this fact that we have to be more quick acting, because the longer those things continue, the more of a drag it is to the surrounding properties and the feeling that the city doesn’t care,” said Kabat. 

The mayor said the city has taken notice of the issues facing the housing stock in La Crosse. Home condemnation is just one way the city has chosen to revitalize La Crosse neighborhoods.

“It’s a little bit different approach, but it is part of what we should be doing when it comes to making La Crosse a great place to live,” said Kabat.

The chief building inspector said the Fire Department’s new Fire Prevention and Building Safety Division should help inspectors get involved with identifying homes in need of repairs sooner, which could speed up the neighborhood revitalization process.

“Hopefully, the community sees that the city is very serious in making La Crosse a livable place,” said Kabat.

The city of La Crosse has several home improvement programs available to property owners looking to fix up their homes. They are the Housing Rehabilitation Loan Program which provides low-interest loans for home improvement projects; the Paint and Fix Up Program, which provides a small grant in exchange for some sweat equity to do minor repairs; and the Housing Replacement Program, which provides affordable, new single-family homes in partnership with Western Technical College, Habitat for Humanity, Coulee Cap and private contractors.