Updated December 6, 2021 - 7:12 am
A Las Vegas residential inspection program launched in response to the deadly Alpine Motel Apartments fire has gotten off to a sluggish start, with the city so far surveying only two of 36 potentially at-risk complexes several months into the public safety initiative.
When city lawmakers in April authorized beginning the reviews at least once per year to ensure the buildings were up to code, one declared: “I think the time is now.” Nearly eight months later, however, “now” remains an elusive target, city data shows.
The pace of inspections appears to be in contrast to the urgency to act that has been conveyed by public officials. The city’s timeline for completing initial inspections is unclear, and a city spokesman declined a request this week to interview someone about the program and instead sent a statement.
In an interview, Mayor Carolyn Goodman acknowledged that the program was not moving fast enough, adding that circumstances beyond the city’s control, including the COVID-19 pandemic, staffing constraints and a transition of top city administrators in late 2020, have played a role in the plan’s progress.
“I would have hoped that we would have been much further along and completed with the process and inspections and reports totally earlier,” Goodman said.
Few inspections, but problems uncovered
The residential inspection program is focused on three dozen residential buildings that are similar to the Alpine, where six people were killed downtown in December 2019 after a pre-dawn fire started from an unattended stovetop. It became the deadliest residential fire in city history.
Police had sought to shut it down beforehand because of repeated criminal activity, but the city had not believed it qualified for closure under its chronic nuisance ordinance.
The tragedy at the 41-unit complex, built in 1972, exposed an awaiting disaster: The Review-Journal found that the complex had a history of fire code violations but had not been inspected by fire officials for more than two years; an audible fire alarm was silenced a month before the blaze; and an emergency exit door was ordered bolted shut by a property manager.
In response, city officials decided on a program to regularly check properties with at least four units that were constructed before 1981 and thus subject to less stringent building codes. Many are motels and hotels that had been converted into apartments or extended-stay residences, often occupied by low-income residents — the type of properties that “kind of fell between the cracks,” city Chief Operations and Development Officer Tom Perrigo said in April.
The rollout has already revealed that the intensified scrutiny is warranted. Smoke alarms were either not working or missing in 31 of 60 units between the two properties that code enforcement officers inspected in October, the city said.
Alarms at the Towne &Country Motel and Desert Moon Motel have since been repaired, as confirmed by officers during a follow-up visit, according to city spokesman Jace Radke.
Both properties were issued notices to fix violations, which as of Nov. 24 also included changes that were made without required permits, such as underway remodeling in a handful of units and water heater installations, according to Radke. The city planned to reinspect the properties Friday.
Fourteen officers; 2,000-plus units
Inspections are tentatively scheduled for nine additional properties in the program over the next two months, according to a city data log, still leaving 25 buildings without an inspection date.
“Even if they did two a month — and I know that they’ve got a lot on their plate — at least you could see some progress,” said Don Walford, a local businessman and longtime downtown advocate. “It makes me a little sad. It just seems like the city just says things, but they never follow through on it.”
In a statement, however, Radke suggested that the city’s code enforcement officers were overwhelmed. Only slightly more than a dozen officers are tasked with handling an average of 25,000 inspections every year across the city, he said.
The filling of vacant positions had halted because of the pandemic, but the city is now planning to hire two more officers to raise the department’s total to 16, he said, which “will help the city to continue to inspect the 36 properties in this program.”
The buildings represent more than 2,000 total individual units among them, city data shows.
While code officers are responsible for the inspections, the city’s fire prevention team is brought into the process if needed, according to Radke.
Inspections and trainings
The three dozen properties are located almost exclusively downtown with many in Ward 3, which is represented by Councilwoman Olivia Diaz, who said she was out of town this past week with spotty service but did not respond to subsequent messages seeking comment about inspection efforts.
Councilman Cedric Crear, whose Ward 5 district includes the boarded-up Alpine and a few other properties in the program, city data shows, also did not respond this past week to messages requesting an interview.
But both city lawmakers were on board with passing the ordinance that established the inspection program April 21. It set the parameters for inspections and gave the city direction to promote training for property owners and tenants regarding their rights and responsibilities.
The introduction of the inspection program followed reforms passed in September 2020, when the City Council agreed to increase fines for neglected apartment buildings and extended-stay hotels and set the stage for the inspection plan.
In August 2017, the city started a similar program intended to reduce fire fatalities by adopting a more proactive approach to code enforcement, but it was much broader and concerned itself with traditional apartment buildings with five or more units.
Mayor vows completion ‘immediately’ or ASAP
Inspections are expected to occur at least once per year, although checkups can occur more frequently if a building is found to be out of compliance. The city has the authority to issue notices of violations and civil penalties or criminal citations.
Under the ordinance, it is illegal to rent a unit to someone until the unit has passed inspection. Property owners may also face discipline if they do not adequately respond to an excessive amount of police calls at the site.
Radke said that quarterly training for landlords is planned to be scheduled next year, as well as sessions for tenants, and that city officials are expected to update the City Council on the status of the program during the council meeting Dec. 15.
Meanwhile, Goodman was adamant that the city took the program seriously despite what the figures show.
“I want you to know the city is very much engaged in it and very focused on getting this entirely done as soon as we’re sure that we have the proper data on all the buildings and that we can in fact prioritize getting this done immediately or as soon as possible,” she said.
Contact Shea Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0272. Follow @Shea_LVRJ on Twitter.