Some Austin residents who have made improvements to their properties just got a jolting message from their city government: pay up or become criminals.

According to the Austin American-Statesman, the City of Austin recently unleashed a torrent of code compliance letters threatening 76 homeowners in the working class Fairview neighborhood in South Austin with criminal prosecution for alleged violations of the voluminous City Code. A follow-up piece reports that residents, along with former state Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, are asking the mayor for relief.

Dozens of unsuspecting homeowners were warned of criminal prosecution if they do not come into compliance, including possible fines of $2,000 a day and disconnection of their utilities, which must be provided through the City-owned monopoly. If misdemeanor fines aren’t paid, arrest warrants can be issued.

Just what kind of mischief have these prospective political prisoners been up to? Dale Flatt, a 24-year city firefighter on medical leave, and his wife received a violation alleging that the City didn’t have a permit on file for a garage conversion at their home. This update was made before Mr. Flatt’s deceased mother-in-law purchased the house in 1968. Nonetheless, the Flatts paid $123 for a building permit to come into compliance only to get another notice last month that their carport was too close to the street.

Another area resident, Margaret Raupe, got a violation notice concerning the conversion of her garage into a living room, which was done some 23 years ago before she bought the home. Now, the City is requiring that they obtain a permit (cost: up to $700) or face criminal prosecution.

Whatever happened to the statute of limitations? If no one was bothered for two decades by whatever improvement was made to the property, why is the City taking these homeowners to the woodshed today? And to make matters worse, the City office that these residents must deal with is only open three hours a day.

This assault on the property rights of area homeowners evidently stemmed from one anonymous complaint. Because the code enforcement process is complaint-driven, one person who may harbor a personal disagreement with a neighbor can literally hold an entire neighborhood hostage to the endless and almost indecipherable alphabet soup of city regulations.

Does this represent a lack of respect for private property rights, the growth of criminal law beyond its traditional scope, a stimulus package for lawyers, an abandonment of common sense – or all of the above?

– Marc Levin