Rebuild trust in codes

Five-year-old homes should not be cracking in half, as they are in the Maple Shade subdivision in southeast Wichita. In the new year, City Manager Robert Layton, city staff, Mayor Carl Brewer, the City Council and a new task force must identify what can be done to spare more homebuyers from the nightmare of Maple Shade — and, as important, rebuild public trust that city codes and enforcement will protect against such construction and hold builders accountable when it occurs.

In article after article over the past few months, The Eagle’s Bill Wilson and Brent D. Wistrom have reported on the buckled foundations, wide floor cracks, poor drainage and other problems that have left more than half a dozen homeowners with huge repair bills. One owner filed bankruptcy and walked away from the house. Another case is in litigation. At one point, a developer of the subdivision added insult to injury by suggesting to The Eagle that the homeowners bore some blame for their crumbling houses by failing to keep the foundations wet.

The articles in the Sunday Eagle homed in on the major influence that the Wichita Area Builders Association has on elections and at City Hall, with former code inspectors saying well connected builders could get violations erased and that their job was to keep builders happy.

But if the builders hold too much sway in Wichita — such that the city is at their beck and call on planning, zoning, codes and everything else — the fault lies with elected leaders and other city officials who’ve allowed themselves to be swayed.

Lobbyists will be lobbyists. In this case, WABA has been effective in lobbying on behalf of its member builders. The question then isn’t so much whether the builders have too much influence but rather: Who’s looking out for the homebuyer and taxpayer?

As the new task force explores the issues that have arisen in Maple Shade, proposals may emerge to newly require soil compaction testing and inspection of the quality and depth of concrete slab foundations on residential building sites. If smaller communities can require that questionable soils be subject to compaction testing (Derby) and that footings be poured on “virgin soil” rather than uncompacted fill (Park City), why can’t Wichita?

City staff also needs to ensure that when homebuyers complain, the city is more responsive than it has been in the cases of the Maple Shade residents.

It is City Hall’s job to protect the rights and interests of citizens, including homebuyers, by requiring and enforcing proper codes. Doing better by citizens on the issues that have plagued Maple Shade must be a 2011 New Year’s resolution for Layton and his staff and the City Council.