Lansing ramps up red-tag enforcement efforts despite staffing shortage


As the new director of Lansing’s director of economic development and planning, Rawley Van Fossen has wasted no time trying to revitalize a Code Enforcement Office that’s been dogged for years by inconsistent leadership and five staff vacancies, including one for a lead housing inspector.

Vacancies remain, but the uptick in red-tagged properties indicates he is having an effect.

Code Enforcement handed out 250 red tags — citations declaring properties unsafe — in February, a 46% increase over the total number at the end of January. As of March 1, the city had 794 red-tagged properties.

More are undoubtedly out there. “Without those positions filled, naturally things are going to be slower here because we have less people to respond — and that becomes a bottleneck in the system,” Van Fossen said.

Van Fossen, 31, is the former executive director of the nonprofit Capital Area Housing Partnership. He is the department’s third director in 15 months.

Van Fossen said the city recently made an offer to fill one vacant inspector position, but the task of hiring five qualified candidates has posed a challenge. Still, with the seven property inspectors who are on payroll, the department hasn’t shied away from penalizing some of the city’s largest landlords and management companies that have repeatedly avoided bringing their properties up to code.

More than 100 of those 250 new red tags were placed at Autumn Ridge Townhomes and Apartments, 900 Long Blvd., a 618-unit, multi-building complex on Lansing’s south side with a history of noncompliance. Additional structures at the site, including parking garages, were also marked unsafe.

The city had entered into a previous agreement with Autumn Ridge’s ownership group, Southfield-based OPV Partners LLC, in 2022. At the time, the city agreed to lift existing tags while repairs were being made. It expired last fall, just before Van Fossen took over.

 “The ownership failed to achieve what they had agreed upon in that settlement. So, when the agreement expired, we took additional actions permitted by the court,” Van Fossen said. OPV Partners still owes the city for unpaid rental registration fees and has yet to schedule the inspections that could clear some of those units from the list, Van Fossen added.

OPV Partners disagrees. On Feb. 21, the management company filed a 700-page lawsuit against the city in the U.S. District Court’s Western District of Michigan. In it, OPV claimed that the city improperly issued the tags at Autumn Ridge and denied OPV the opportunity to appeal. The suit also claims that the city’s actions violated the terms of that 2022 agreement.

 The group, which has owned Autumn Ridge since 2014, is seeking $44 million through that pending litigation. While the company did not respond to a request for comment on this story, the property’s general manager, Ric Colon, claimed in a March 26 statement that the city “violated the current agreement and its own housing code” and “wrongfully withheld certification on units that are in compliance with the code.”

 “Contrary to misleading media reports, there are only nine units that are currently not safe for rental and should be red tagged,” Colon wrote, adding that Autumn Ridge has “never rented a unit that is unsafe.”

 The suit named Van Fossen and deputy director Nicholas Montry as co-defendants along with the city.

 “They’re now trying to put a pause button on all of this through ongoing litigation, and the only folks who are being taken advantage of and disenfranchised are the residents who call Autumn Ridge home,” Van Fossen said.

First Ward City Council member Ryan Kost, who has been critical of the Code Enforcement Office, praised Van Fossen’s efforts. Kost’s hope is that the recent tags at Autumn Ridge will send a message to other noncompliant landlords.

“Before I came in, it was a patchwork — especially when you’re talking about landlords who own many properties. The city was getting skimped on fees by many landlords. The fees were not always being collected fairly or evenly. That has all changed.”

Kost and Van Fossen agree that reform at the state level is needed. State regulations have prevented Code Enforcement from red-tagging individual units in multi-unit developments. Thus, a building with multiple noncompliant units can only be hit with a single $150 monthly compliance fee, rather than separate fees for each.

“If we have a building with 32 apartments and we’re able to tag the units at $150 each, the city should get $4,800 a month. Instead, we’re getting $150 for all of them,” Kost said. “If we could fix that loophole, that would probably make Code Enforcement’s work move a little faster, because if you don’t hit these guys in the pocketbook, they’re just not going to move.”

 Van Fossen said those fees are “definitely an area we struggle with,” but he noted that a change there would have to be approved by the Legislature, which he said “hasn’t adopted a new international property maintenance code or building code since 2015.”

 “There’s a new version of that almost every year,” he said. “From what I’m hearing, the Legislature should be adopting the code from 2021 this spring. Once that’s official, then the local units can update their versions.”

As that process plays out, the department has taken steps toward adjusting its red- and pink-tag — pink is for lesser code violations — fee structure for the first time in 15 years.

 “Are our monitoring fees appropriate for large complexes? Are all our costs being covered? The answer we’ve decided internally is no, and that’s what we want to address here,” Van Fossen said.

The next step will be to present those findings and suggest fee adjustments to the Council’s Committee of the Whole next week. From there, the Council can vote to adopt those changes for the 2025 budget.

 In the meantime, Kost is using his position as chair of the Public Safety Committee to push noncompliant properties through the make safe or demolish process. Since the year began, there have consistently been about 30 on that list each month.

Kost said he has no intention of taking his foot off the gas.

 “Once the red tags start to clear up a bit, it’s easy for us to claim victory and wash our hands of it. But the moment we start to relax, those numbers creep back up. We can’t afford to let that happen,” he said.



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