Interview with Building and Housing Director

by Pamela Vincent

Jimmie Williams has years of experience working in housing with Famicos Foundation, and was recently appointed the commissioner of building and housing. Some of his goals as the Director are the speedy processing of permits to build more housing, addressing the problems with elevators in Cleveland, and most importantly being respectful of tenants in buildings with condemnation orders. Jim realizes that the inspectors working for him have great power over the lives of people and he stresses that they use discretion.

        Another issue for the Building and Housing Department is the proposal that Cleveland City Council will soon be debating to make it a cabinet level position instead of a division of the Community Development Department. According to Williams and the Campbell administration, this would be a good thing for the City as it allows easier access to the Mayor and other Directors.

        I spoke with Jim, in his City Hall office about all these topics covered in a speech he gave to the Cuyahoga Affordable Housing Alliance group at the Department of Housing and Urban Development where he also discussed bringing humanity back to the Building and Housing.

 P. Vincent: Congratulations on your appointment. When did it officially begin?

Jimmie Williams:“April 1st, 2002.”

PV: “I was told you gave a speech before the CAHA at HUD where you spoke about bringing humanity back to the Building and Housing Department. Can you elaborate on that?”

JW: ”Not bringing it back, but rather increasing humanity...increasing the sensitivity of the inspectors so that they realize that they are dealing with people and buildings.”

PV: “What about the situation with the inspectors, were there issues in the past where they had been less sensitive to the people?”

JW: “There weren’t any issues with them, we just wanted to increase their level of sensitivity. The way the times are now we have less housing; we want to make sure the families needs are considered when we’re making decisions about their housing in the city.”

PV: “What happens when a house is condemned, or a residence is condemned? Once notice is given...is there a time limit for them to vacate and do the residents receive help or assistance in finding other housing?”
JW: “There’s a time limit given and what we do now is we make sure the proper agencies are involved so they can find decent housing. Our primary goal is to insure that people are living in safe housing.”

PV: “What are some of the big changes or goals you have this year that you want to accomplish?”
JW: “Expanding training and careers, enhancing opportunities for staff, we want to have better interaction between Building and Housing personnel, we want to move inspectors into the community, we want to reduce the number of court cases especially where owner occupants are involved. We want to be able to use information technology...”

PV: “Is that to help track everything that’s in process with the houses?”

JW: “That’s right, and we want to reduce the number of condemnations with properties and reduce the number and size of inventory of condemned homes.”

PV: ”So there will be houses that are raised and more being built to replace them?”

JW: “Not necessarily, just because a house is condemned doesn’t mean you raise it, you condemn a house because it’s unsafe.”

PV: “Are there financially opportunities for them to utilize to improve their homes like low interest loans”?
JW: “There are several low interest loans available to them, the City of Cleveland has two programs: Repair-A-Home (RAH), and (SHAP) Senior Housing Assistance Program for the elderly people to contact. The County has a program called HELP, which provides low interest loans, administered through the banks.

PV: “I understand one of the things you also mentioned in your speech was speeding up the process for the permits?”

JW: “Yes.”

PV: “Does that tie in with your technology improvements and the training for staff?”
JW: “Yes, training, technology, establishing and monitoring performance standards, [and] having an open door policy for interaction for working with the builders and developers.”

PV: “Do you have a goal in mind as far as the turn around time for permits or is that something that will happen down the road?”

JW: “The State requirement for permits is 30 days, we try to do the best we can to keep to that number.”
PV: “Will these changes require that you have additional staff to help and be out there with the inspectors?
JW: “We need additional staff but I know the budget will not allow for additional staff.”

PV: “So do you think that in the coming years you’ll be able to expand your staff once money is in the budget, because you really seem to need them.”

JW: “Yes, there’s a need for additional staff, so hopefully we’ll be able to expand in that area.”

PV: “In your speech you also talked about the problems with the elevators in Cleveland, do you remember what that was about?”

JW: “The Division of Building and Housing is responsible for elevator inspections, we try to mandate to make inspections on a routine basis and we generally do that and write up certificates for inspections.”

PV: “Is there a lag time because I’ve heard it takes a while to receive the certificates?”

JW: “We’re behind on the certificates, and we’re trying our best to catch up working overtime to catch up on the issuing of certificates and permits. We issue twenty-thousand building permits a year, and I’m not sure of the exact number of certificates of occupancy we issue each year, I know we’re 200 behind so it’s got to be quite a few.

PV: “You mention that you wanted to get your inspectors out into the community, are there stations set up for them to work in at different sides of town?”

JW: “They’ll be working through CDC offices, (Community Development Corporation) and at public facilities such as recreation centers.”

PV: “This is going to happen this year?”
JW: “Some of them are in place working right now so we’ll be improving on that.”
PV: ”How is the public made aware of these new stations?”

JW: “Right now the way we’re using them as a point for them (the inspectors) to do their paperwork every day. It saves them a one-hour travel to come here to use a desk. We hope to eventually have, sometime in the far future, satellite offices or places where they can be for them to check on the status of the plans. In fact we are going to be doing that online. We working right now to put the application for the building permits online, the status of the permits applications and plan reviews online and also information on inspections...housing inspections, building inspections, board ups...we’re working to put all of that online so that the public can access it and find out what the status of the permit is.”

 PV: “What about having access to print out their certificate online? That could save mail time and postage fees.”

JW: “We’ll probably be doing that. I’m pretty sure we will, we already have permit applications online that can be downloaded they don’t have to come down here to fill out an application. We want them to be able to do the entire process online and that’s our goal. We also want to establish a road map where by people coming to the city to visit Building and Housing will have the staff there to tell them what stations to go to and what’s expected, what there needs are, we’re working on that as an all City Hall practice particularly through Building and Housing. Putting out more information, brochures, and online how to complete a building application permit and we’ll be adding to that.”

PV: “The inspectors would be able to help the homeowners or builders etc....filling out the forms for permits or repairs, or financial assistance. Sometimes people have trouble filling out the forms or understanding the process.”

 JW: “That what’s we expect to fall under the realm of the Community Development Corporation. They generally have people available to assist and work with the residents to fill out forms. The inspectors can do a lot of explaining as to what takes place and why things take place as well as having a lot of written information. We seem to have a lot of fence applications so we’ll have instructions online for filling out fence applications or other specific applications.”

PV: “For specific home improvements that are pretty common like roofs...?”

JW: “Yes, that’s one we do that’ll we’ll have instructions for and things like weather insulation and things like that.”

 PV: “Do you think that eventually the City of Cleveland will go around and do random inspections on the houses needing repair so that they don’t get to the point where they need to be condemned? ”I know other Cities have programs in place and are pretty strict about keeping the repairs up on the homes.”

JW: “That’s part of our plan to have an organized assessment of residential houses. We currently do commercial sweeps but we want to be more organized for residential and over a period of time all the houses will have some type of inspection especially the interiors, right now just the exteriors are done.”

PV: “That’s seems like such a huge undertaking...”
JW: “Well they did it...in 98'...they did drive by assessments.”

PV: “Oh really...but, not the internal ones?”

JW: “Well the internal inspections are much more difficult to do now because you have to have a search warrant and if they don’t invite you in you have to obtain a search warrant.”

PV: “When I first talked to you over the phone we discussed your position becoming a cabinet position. When do you think that might happen?”

JW: “Well hopefully between now and the first of the year.”

PV: “What has to happen for that to go through?”
JW: “City Council has to approve it. We have a reorganization committee now that will come up with a process for establishing the Building and Housing Department as a Cabinet level department...they’re scheduling meetings now for the council to review.

City Council will review and hopefully rule on it before the end of the year.”

PV: “Is there anything else from your speech that you want to address?”

JW: “Not, really just that we want to be consumer friendly, we want to be able to make it easier for people to solve their B&H issues, through the neighborhood committee and inspections. We want to improve the quality of our housing stock, and we want to be able to do this by bringing in all the relevant agencies to help.”

PV: “OK, well I think that’s it. Thank you I appreciate your time.

JW: “You’re welcome.”

        Jimmie Williams dedication to his job is evident in the long hours he keeps. It was well after 6 when we finished talking and as he went in search of a snack it was clear his day was not over yet. Before I left I asked him if he usually worked long hours and he smiled and said, “I try not to.”

        As he walked me out of his office Jimmie Williams continued to speak about the programs available particularly to assist the elderly with fixing up their homes. He mentioned the (NPI) Neighborhood Progress Incorporated who arranges grants through the City Council representatives. For more information on some of these programs please call the following numbers: RAH (Repair-A-Home) 216-664-2045; (SHAP) Senior Housing Assistance Program 216-664-2833.; (CASH) Cleveland Action to Support Housing 216-621-7350; (HWAP) Home Weatherization Assistance Program 216-664-4116; Paint Refund Program 216-664-4053; and (AAH) Afford-A-Home216-664-4218.

Published in the Homeless Grapevine, Cleveland Ohio August 2002 Issue 56