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posted: 5/9/2014 12:01 AM

Deal fairly with unpermitted dwellings

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Q. In a recent article, you gave some advice that showed a lack of professional ethics. Someone wrote to you about an unpermitted guesthouse in their backyard. The building department had learned about it and had ordered them to cease using it as a rental unit. Rather than advising them to obey the law, you showed disdain for the building code and suggested ways of avoiding compliance. If you don't agree with the laws, you should encourage people to change them. Building codes are intended to keep people out of substandard and potentially dangerous housing. The Internet is replete with stories of tragic house fires resulting from substandard conditions. I really find your position and the content of that column to be shocking and unprofessional. If you want to correct this with a follow-up column, that would be great, as long as you don't further vent your negative opinions about building laws.

A. You are right to suggest a follow-up article. More should be said about the laws regulating unpermitted dwellings and the ways those laws are enforced. However, a few words should be said first about the value of the building code in general.

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America, without question, has the most well-conceived system of construction regulations in the world. This becomes strikingly apparent when we see the results of earthquakes in places such as California, compared with the consequences of quakes in most other countries. In other places, the casualties from earthquakes often number in the thousands, compared with major quakes in this country, where the numbers of lost lives are few and sometimes none. These differences are the direct result of our building codes. Any American contractor who has traveled abroad and taken a look at construction sites in other places has seen clear examples of construction methods that would never have been acceptable here.

Other examples of building standards that save lives are to be found in our electrical codes that prevent fires and eliminate shock hazards; the plumbing codes that regulate the use of natural gas piping to prevent fires, explosions, and asphyxiation; the mechanical codes that prevent hazardous condition involving furnaces, boilers, fireplaces and other potentially dangerous equipment. This list could be expanded to fill a book, further emphasizing the values and benefits of our building codes.

But now we come to the regulations that prohibit unpermitted dwellings and the unfortunate ways some of these standards are enforced. Without question, housing that is substandard and unsafe should not be allowed. Enforcement in such cases is essential. When dwellings are unsuitable for habitation, the full force of the law should be brought to bear. However, housing laws exist to prevent unacceptable conditions. What about the many unpermitted dwellings that are well constructed, clean and in compliance with our building standards? Rather than imposing the law on responsible owners of these rentals, perhaps building officials should apply common sense and take a closer look. Why should the law be imposed blindly on every unpermitted dwelling, as though every one is a rat-infested hovel? Such buildings should be subject to inspection. If code violations are found, the owners should be given a specified time period to correct the problems. If a second inspection determines the dwelling to be in compliance with code, occupancy of the dwelling should be resumed.

In many American towns and cities, we have a shortage of what has become known as "affordable housing." A partial solution for this problem is provided by average homeowners who benefit from the additional rent received from a guesthouse or garage apartment. It is a win-win solution, without the government having to tax and spend to create homes for poor people.

No one benefits from a blanket prohibition of unpermitted homes. A better solution is reasonable enforcement of codes and zoning laws to ensure those homes are safe and habitable.

• To write to Barry Stone, visit him on the web at www.housedetective.com, or write AMG, 1776 Jami Lee Court, Suite 218, San Luis Obispo, CA 94301.

© 2014, Action Coast Publishing

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