WILDWOOD — Dave Bannon and Joe Fleming walked into their second-floor office at City Hall one recent morning to find 43 voicemails waiting — a slow day for them.
Bannon is the city’s code enforcement official, and Fleming is the housing inspector. Together, the two represent the leading edge of a major city initiative to bring 1,600 licensed rental properties up to modern code requirements.
To do that, they must reverse decades of neglect by rental property owners, while also addressing Wildwood’s image as a destination for younger vacationers who transform rental properties into dreaded and noisy animal houses.
They have the backing of the city’s year-round residents, who have long complained about the rowdy summer tenants, a tougher set of mercantile license requirements and the vocal support of the city’s mayor, Ernie Troiano Jr., who last month wrote to all rental property owners asking them to help clean up the city.
On this day, summer is still some time away, and the issues awaiting Bannon and Fleming range from tenants with no heat or hot water to broken pipes and landlords trying to figure out the city’s new mercantile license policy.
“These changes were made to give better enforcement tools to the city, thereby ensuring a better quality of life for residents and visitors,” Troiano wrote in his letter to license holders.
It helps that “quality of life” is more than a catchphrase for Bannon and Fleming. The two men live in the town.
“Our hearts are in the city,” said Bannon, a graduate of Wildwood High School. “We just want to hit every house. We want to clean it up.”
Bannon and Fleming are on the road every day, going from rooming houses to single-family homes and everything in between. The day starts with a stop just a couple of streets away from City Hall on Burk Avenue. Two one-story homes share the lot, and the yard is littered with debris, including old chairs and a rusting bed frame.
“This is exactly what we want to clean up here,” Bannon said.
The tenants have been dealing with a lack of heat during one of the coldest and snowiest Januarys on record. Armed with a Black & Decker heat detector, Bannon checked the temperature inside one home.
“It registers 50 degrees in the kitchen here,” he said, finding the temperature slightly higher at 58 in the living room.
State guidelines require a sustained temperature of 68 degrees for a habitable property.
Bannon has already spoken with the Delaware-based owner, and some repairs appear to have been made — an old broken heater lies on the street next to the trash cans — but Bannon wanted to make sure the place is livable.
On his first visit some days ago, he found the heat wasn’t working and, drawing from the city’s relocation fund, he moved the family into temporary housing for a few days.
“They were living in these conditions for 20 days,” Bannon said. “It’s sad to see these kids living like this. I have kids their age. I was kind of heartbroken.”
Bannon planned to return to Burk Avenue later in the day when the other tenants are home.
His agenda next took him to the 100 block of East Youngs Avenue, where he pointed out a home that had been closed after the carbon monoxide poisoning of at least one tenant.
Inside, he found broken pipes, exposed wiring and a malfunctioning heater.
“This building is not permitted for human occupancy,” read the bold orange sticker Bannon placed on the front door.
“Ninety percent of the problem is absentee landlords,” Bannon said of the task the city has to handle.
“You’ve got some good ones. You got some bad ones,” Bannon said. “The problem right now is we have a lot of bad ones.”
That’s where the mayor’s Jan. 21 letter to the 1,600 license holders comes in.
In the two-page missive, Troiano first thanks “those responsible property owners in our city who comply with our property maintenance codes and do not allow criminal or nuisance activity at their properties.”
The letter’s target is the other group of property owners, he explains: the irresponsible ones.
To that end, under new ordinances, the police chief, a fire official and Bannon must sign off on each mercantile license, a document required to do business in the city. That means any place to be rented must be inspected and meet the standards of each of those officials.
Bannon’s phone rings steadily, and on the other end are property owners anxious to learn more about the city’s stricter requirements.
Troubled properties will find their way to his desk eventually.
His office writes up properties that aren’t maintained, and the city will clean up those it deems too unsightly. The homeowner then receives a bill for the service, known as a clean and lien. That program brought in $40,000 last year.
The inspectors also issue tickets forcing owners into court.
“The only way to get some of them down here is to write them a ticket,” Bannon said.
Still, shutting down or condemning a home is the last thing he wants to do.
“Living in Wildwood,” Bannon says of his hometown, “I just don’t want to see the buildings boarded up.”
Still another side of the problem is the tenants who occupy the homes.
For example, Bannon showed a reporter a photograph of a rental property littered with trash and seriously damaged by the young people who rented it.
A hole had been punched into a wall between two rooms simply to allow the occupants greater ease to pass beer to each other. A row of liquor bottles lined the top of the refrigerator.
“18-year-olds,” Bannon said of the bottles’ owners.
Bannon and his small band of inspectors — currently the office includes two part-timers — see such things almost routinely, particularly in the summer, as they respond to calls about rowdy renters, substandard housing and nuisance neighbors. The number of messages doubles in summer.
“It seems endless,” Fleming said of the workload.
But the inspectors keep going because this is their home, too.
“We’ve got to take back our town,” Bannon said. “We really do.”
Contact Trudi Gilfillian: