Off the records: no easy way to access Asheville’s housing complaints

This piece goes with this week’s investigative news story Breaking the Mold, about rental housing issues in Asheville.

Concerns about substandard rental housing in Asheville are nothing new. But assessing the extent of the problem has proved to be a slippery slope: Although tenant complaints are a matter of public record, there's no easy way to access or search them.

In the wake of last October’s Open Data Day (part of an ongoing push by city staffers, business owners, activists and nonprofits to make Asheville’s store of information more accessible to the public), Xpress began working with city staff, in hopes of making it easier to answer key questions. Do certain kinds of complaints, such as mold, occur more frequently? Does a particular landlord have a record of similar complaints across different properties?

Ready access to that kind of information would mean citizens (and especially potential renters) could be better informed.

Despite those staffers’ best efforts, however, the results have fallen short. Much of the data they’re trying to digitize is spread across numerous departments using often incompatible systems. Speaking about housing information, Asheville GIS mapper Scott Barnwell lamented in February, “I don't think it was ever designed to extract the kind of reports that we’re trying to get.” And in an April email, Barnwell, one of the chiefs of the city’s open data efforts, noted that deciphering the data “has been a big challenge,” because the files have been kept in an exceptionally obsolete system that makes converting them into more common, searchable formats extremely difficult.

Merely determining how many complaints were received each year has turned out to be incredibly difficult, with Xpress receiving contradictory reports from different city staffers.

In May, for example, as part of our attempt to make more of this information public, city staff sent along a spreadsheet listing more than 300 complaints over the prior 12 months — though that included commercial as well as residential tenants. And in connection with an Xpress investigation five years ago, city staff described steadily rising numbers of complaints since the system was instituted in 2003, providing specific numbers for those years (see “Who's Complaining Now?” March 5, 2008, Xpress).

Yet when Xpress, in the course of researching this story, requested a firm, up-to-date accounting of the number of complaints received since 2003, Building Safety Director Shannon Tuch replied, “I tried to mine some actual hard numbers, but the record was too incomplete and measured different things at different times.” — David Forbes

— — D.F.

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