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.
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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.