City Says Regulating Boarding Homes Could Cost More Than $1 Million A Year

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For years, Dallas has struggled to regulate the city's boarding houses, the places that many low-income mentally ill, disabled and elderly people call home. As we discussed in a recent cover story, right now, the city knows where about 330 of these homes are, and they're inspected regularly for code and fire violations. But Dallas, along with most other Texas cities, isn't taking advantage of a 2009 state law that would allow them to license and better regulate the quality of life in these homes.

That law gave cities the authority to require licenses, more detailed inspections and very specific standards for all boarding homes: that residents be given clean sheets and towels, for example, doors that lock and a reasonable amount of space between each bed. At some of the worst boarding homes, as Dave Hogan, the head of the Dallas police crisis intervention unit told us, residents are crammed like sardines into bunk-beds, and the environment can be dirty, chaotic or downright dangerous. But for the past few years, Dallas hasn't made much progress on the boarding home issue, to the frustration of mental health advocates.

This morning, the City Council's housing committee will be briefed again on the boarding home situation: According to the briefing docs, city staff wants to start implementing boarding home licensure, inspections and standards in about six months. But they say this better regulation could come with $1 million-a-year price tag and still has "limitations." And they show that the city is still trying to figure out how to get a handle on another common problem: Neighbors who complain that a boarding home in the neighborhood makes other residents less safe, with mentally ill residents roaming the streets and frequent calls to police and EMS.

The briefing says that regulating boarding homes will take no less than 18 full-time employees, including four caseworkers and eight inspectors. They estimate that with equipment costs, regulation will run to about $1.3 million a year. And even though they're planning on charging each home $735 to obtain a license, that won't offset the cost: if 300 facilities became licensed, that would bring in about $220,000 a year. We talked to a representative from El Paso, the only city in Texas that's currently regulating boarding homes, and they didn't report a price tag anywhere near that high. But El Paso only has about 25 homes registered.

The city also says state law doesn't give them the authority to regulate around 100 of the group facilities they have on their radar, but that's because many of them are places like nursing homes that are already regulated by the state -- and as the author of the law, state Representative Jose Menendez explained to us, amending the bill to give cities the power to oversee the same facilities runs the risk of making the whole thing unenforceable. But the briefing shows that city staff is still looking for a way to oversee state-licensed facilities.

The briefing warns that the law relies on boarding home operators to self-report allegations of abuse and injuries sustained by the residents. It also says the city can't ensure "continuous compliance" with the requirements -- the homes would still only be inspected annually and in response to complaints. This is a real concern, as Dr. James Baker of Metrocare Services told us: His staff has seen that the conditions in boarding homes can change drastically from month to month.

The city's still weighing other options to enforce standards in the homes, such as allowing a city-appointed trustee to take over a bad home instead of shutting it down altogether. And the City Attorney's Office is researching another option to crack down on "nuisance" homes, the briefing says: making the owner or operator of a boarding home liable for a criminal offense when residents "create a nuisance or disrupt neighbors."

There's obviously still a lot of uncertainty about the best way to make sure boarding homes are clean and safe, and the council may suffer from serious sticker shock when they see that million-dollar price. But ignoring boarding homes isn't an option anymore. City staff expects to add the law to the City Code in May and to start the new regulations October 1, 2012.


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mark zero (Jason)
mark zero (Jason)

the homes would still only be inspected annually and in response to complaints.

It's a start, especially considering we can't even keep our restaurants inspected yearly.

Oak Cliff Townie
Oak Cliff Townie

I guess the operators of these homes have an organization and have someone in Austin Lobbying for them .

DallasDrilling
DallasDrilling

Not state, City Hall. Check the lobbyist registration under the city secretary section on the web site. You'll see who's lobbying the council on a daily basis.Very interesting to see.

RC
RC

With this price tag, it's obvious that Mary Suhm sees no problem with our current situation and/or figures if she throws out the million dollar price tag via staff or others, that everyone will run from it. Which tells me that it should be expended out similar to what RTGolden has suggested. This is a problem, growing bigger by the day and under the radar.

RTGolden
RTGolden

330 homes on the city's 'radar'.  1.3mil $$.  Thats almost 4,000$/home for the city to simply inspect, file and report.  That is BS.  8 inspectors?  hire two.  that's 170 homes per inspector.  There's roughly 220 work days in a year, taking out for paid vacation, federal holidays, and sick leave accrual.  Gives the inspectors 1 1/3days per home for inspection and filling out the reports.  Inspect a home every MTW, fill out your reports on thurs, golf on friday.  keep your four caseworkers, hire two clerks per inspector, makes for a staff of 8.  If you average income for the entire staff at 40k/year, that's 320k in salary.  with a staff of 18 it would be 720k.  already cut 400k off the price tag and you're under a million/year.  If you want make sure you're getting the most bang for taxpayers' dollars, instead of hiring some cronies in the program, subcontract the entire deal out to Metrocare, or some other knowledgeable organization.

I know these numbers are pretty ham-fisted, and I know nothing about running either a city or a boarding house.  But common sense tells me if someone as ignorant about the subject as I am can get the costs down this far, far smarter people can get them down even more.

Tim Covington
Tim Covington

I agree with you that the $1.3 million is overinflated. But, paying a salary of $40k/year costs much more than that. You have to include the cost of taxes (their are taxes employers pay on employees based on salary), insurance, office space. office supplies and equipment, transportation to do the inspections, and I'm sure there are other expenses I'm not even thinking of. But, I think the job could easily be done for half the amount given. I do not see why they need that large of a staff.

RTGolden
RTGolden

Not to mention, with a smaller staff, I've already reduced the overhead expenses.  Smaller staff means less payroll taxes, less employer contribution to healthcare plan, less office expense, and only two inspector vehicles vs. 8.probably saved them enough to be able to afford to outsource the city's legal services when the inevitable lawsuit rolls around.

RTGolden
RTGolden

Yeah I only focused on the actual paycheck because I was at lunch, had just got my paycheck and noticed how far from 1.3$million it is.

Sybil's Beaver
Sybil's Beaver

Has everyone heard? Richie Whitt is boneing me!!! I have always allowed spares inside of me but I never thought I would land the spare of all spares. Go me!!!

Paul
Paul

And how much is the City currently spending on police, fire and EMS calls to current boarding houses?

Why isn't an SUP required for these places?

Anna Merlan
Anna Merlan

According to a report written by Dave Hogan at Crisis Intervention, over a two-year period, 16 boarding homes were responsible for 701 emergencies warranting police reports. The same homes summoned fire department ambulance crews 855 times. There's no cost estimate, but that's still a pretty substantial use of emergency services.  

Some of these homes do have occupancy permits of various kinds. It all depends on the type of facility it is. But the point of HB 216 is that code compliance permits don't address quality of life for residents; they only ensure there's not an immediate fire hazard. That leaves a lot of larger issues unaddressed.

Paul
Paul

 Thank you Anna.

Wouldn't part of the SUP process be how many square feet there are per resident and how much common area is needed?

A limitation or requirement for floor space per resident would  address a basic requirement which in turn would prevent "warehousing".

The EMS response is scary as this works out to an average of 1 call per week per known boarding home.

Paul
Paul

 Thank you again Anna

Anna Merlan
Anna Merlan

An SUP deals more with how a new property will fit in with adjacent properties and the overall character of the neighborhood -- properties can be granted SUPs by the City Council even if they don't quite gibe with the rest of the neighborhood businesses, which is why we hear about them most often in relation to bars. Some of these homes do have SUPs, actually -- the ones in residential neighborhoods. You're thinking more of an occupancy permit, which still doesn't specify common area, just how many people overall are allowed to be there.

The ESM response is even more troubling, because it's just 16 homes that account for all of those calls. But, to be fair, a lot of boarding home operators I interviewed talked about their clients calling 911 unbidden for even small things. If you look at the police reports for some of these calls, you see things like someone calling 911 because another resident took his pack of cigarettes. I'm guessing not all 700 calls and 800 ambulances were for things that were that trivial though. 

Oak Cliff Townie
Oak Cliff Townie

I guess the yearly fees to operate one of these places should be high enough to pay for the inspections and Paperwork .

Downtown Resident
Downtown Resident

This is city government we're talking here, common sense like that has no place in the discussion.

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