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Code Blues

Mention the name "Fritz Tuffli" around the upside-down glass pyramid of Tempe City Hall, and you will likely be greeted with a roll of the eyes, or a slight crinkling of the nose, as if some unwanted odor had drifted into the building.

Tuffli is a humorless man who seems to derive his only pleasure from trying to topple the pyramid. This month, he managed at least to dent it by taking out--for the time being--the city's much-anticipated new Rental Housing Code.

For the past seven years, Tuffli has been a regular fixture at city council meetings, launching into long, finger-pointing harangues on any number of issues. He runs a 1-800 voter-information hot line--a sort of right-wing "Radio Free Tempe"--from his home, and pays for it with his own money.

Tuffli acknowledges that his politics are "somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun." But he knows how to work the system. He is also absolutely single-minded, assiduously documenting his allegations and tape-recording his telephone conversations with city officials--techniques he no doubt honed during his previous incarnation as one of Tempe's finest.

Tuffli, 44, resigned from the Tempe Police Department in 1989 after a three-year battle with his superiors. Twice they tried to fire him, and twice he fought back, winning reinstatement both times.

Tuffli says he originally was ousted for berating a crime victim who refused to cooperate with him during an investigation. After being rehired, he again was cashiered for allegedly making harassing telephone calls to his superiors. Again, Tuffli successfully defended himself during a city merit-board hearing.

Tuffli finally agreed to step down after being awarded a year's severance pay. He now divides his time between selling insurance and badgering the city.

"If the city supports something," notes one city staffer, "Fritz will oppose it."

Such was the case with the Rental Housing Code.
Tempe, which has perhaps the boldest civic agenda of any Valley city, badly wanted to take steps to clean up its stock of rental housing. In February, by a 6-to-1 vote, the city council passed the code, which set tough new standards. Landlords would face fines, misdemeanor criminal citations--even liens on their properties--if they failed to comply with the code.

The code had the strong backing of neighborhood activists eager to do away with run-down-looking homes. Tenants' advocates also embraced it as one way to give renters more power to force reluctant landlords to make repairs.

Not everyone was happy, though.
Tuffli, who rents an apartment, says he feared his rent would have increased had the code been enacted. He also worried that the code would have been selectively enforced and used as a tool to establish a citywide patronage system through which councilmembers could have extorted money from landlords.

City officials dismiss Tuffli's arguments with a sort of "there he goes again" shrug.

But Tuffli had a powerful, although reluctant, ally.
The Arizona Multihousing Association, the state's landlord lobby, denounced the code as soon as it passed as needlessly draconian, saying it would raise rents and unfairly punish all landlords.

On March 31, using paid petition gatherers, the AMA filed more than 6,000 signatures with the city--enough to put the issue on the September 9 city ballot.

The election most certainly would have taken place had the city not run up against an opponent even more dogged and diligent than the landlord's lobby.

Late on the afternoon of July 11, Fritz Tuffli walked up to the counter in the City Clerk's Office at Tempe City Hall. In his hand was his typed argument against the housing code to be included in the city's publicity pamphlet. The deadline for handing in arguments both for and against the ordinance was one hour away.

The clerk looked at Tuffli's argument, noticed he hadn't signed it, and told him she couldn't accept it without an original signature, as required by state law.

He complied, then asked to see the rest of the arguments accepted by the city. The clerk handed them over.

Tuffli studied the arguments and noticed that of the 15 submitted supporting the code, 14 lacked signatures or were faxed copies, thereby not fulfilling the law's requirement that the signatures be originals. Six of the 14 arguments submitted against the code didn't pass legal muster, either.

Early the next week, City Clerk Helen Fowler sent letters to everyone who had submitted written arguments that didn't comply with the law.

"While the deadline was met in submission of your letter," Fowler wrote, "we must have a letter on file with an original signature."

Tuffli went into attack mode, threatening to sue both Fowler and Tempe city attorney Dave Merkel if they allowed the unsigned arguments to go to press.  

"This is election fraud in the worst sense of the word," Tuffli said at the time.

With evidence in hand, Tuffli tried to enlist the AMA--the landlord's lobby--in his battle with the city. He says none of his phone calls was returned, even though striking the pro-code arguments from the pamphlet would have been a significant victory for those opposed to the code, especially since those in support--namely, neighborhood and tenants' activists--had no funds with which to get the word out.

The AMA and the Arizona Association of Realtors, on the other hand, already had dumped around $45,000 into the push to overturn the code at the polls, and were promising to spend as much as it took to defeat the code.

It wasn't the first time Tuffli had gone on the attack. Early this year, Tuffli got a bill introduced in the Arizona Legislature that would have preempted Tempe's code by exempting all properties built before its passage.

The bill never caught on, though. Tuffli blames the AMA, saying that if it had lobbied on the bill's behalf, the landlords would have won a statewide victory.

James Rees, the AMA's director of municipal government affairs, says his organization "just didn't like the thought of preemption," preferring instead to try to work things out with Tempe.

Tuffli calls the AMA's reaction "stupefying."
"Twice I had the City of Tempe prostrate, with its jugular exposed, and I gave them [the AMA] the sword, and they refused to stick it in," he complains.

Nevertheless, based on Tuffli's threat to sue over the arguments, city attorney Dave Merkel kicked the matter into Maricopa County Superior Court, where all parties, including the AMA, Tuffli, who represented himself, and several groups supporting the code, were summoned on July 30.

In his ruling that same day, Judge Robert Myers sided with Tuffli, saying Tempe had indeed violated state election law by accepting the arguments.

The AMA also used the occasion to argue that ballot language stating the code's intent was to protect "the public health, safety or welfare and prevent slum-like or deteriorating conditions" was unfairly biased in favor of the city. Rees explains:

"On the ballot, you can't just say what you think a piece of legislation will do, or what you want it to do. The language has to accurately reflect what's in the legislation--we didn't think it did."

Despite the fact the code made numerous references to "deteriorating or slum-like conditions," Myers sided with the AMA.

"I guess you're the big winners today," Myers told the victors.
That night, the Tempe City Council held an emergency session. Faced with the twin blows dealt it that afternoon, the council voted 6 to 1 to kill the code and cancel the election. After the vote, Tempe Mayor Neil Giuliano said the city welcomed the chance to "sit down with all sides and try again."

It makes sense that of all Valley communities, Tempe would be the first to craft an ordinance aimed at improving its stock of rental properties.

According to 1995 census figures, 49 percent of Tempe's 60,000 residences were rentals. That's a higher percentage than any other Valley community. And the percentage has risen steadily, up from 38 percent in 1970. In 1995, Tempe's rental market included 3,900 single-family homes, 3,000 condominiums and nearly 22,000 apartments.

Besides the fact that half of Tempe is up for rent, the city of 155,000 is unique from other Valley cities in another key regard: It is landlocked, hemmed in by Phoenix, Mesa, Chandler, Scottsdale and the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.

The lack of elbow room has forced Tempe to make the most of what it has, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the city's older urban core, especially along the northern end of Mill Avenue between University and the Salt River.

A decade ago, over considerable protest, the city began an aggressive campaign to transform--some said gentrify--the area into a mecca for shoppers. Today, downtown Tempe, with its rows of coffee shops, bookstores, shops and midlevel offices, actually feels more urban than downtown Phoenix, crammed with its massive, bland blocks of skyscrapers.

Even when Bank One Ballpark opens next year, downtown Phoenix boosters still will have a lot of catching up to do, especially once Rio Salado begins taking shape just north of downtown Tempe. Phoenix voters rejected taking part in that project, a manmade lake in the bed of the Salt River, lined with thousands of apartments and acres of office space.

When the project is built out in the next two decades, many planners anticipate it will transform Tempe into the Valley's hottest--and densest--urban center, the Valley's equivalent of Manhattan's Upper West Side.  

None of which is lost on Bill Butler, whose rental properties will soon lie within the massive economic watershed created once the lake starts to fill.

During a recent tour of the west Tempe neighborhood where he rents two small properties, Butler, a self-described "dirty hands kind of guy," stops his truck and shouts, "I like your work!" to a carpenter rebuilding the storage shed on a small apartment complex. The building was recently taken over by a new owner who, like Butler, has chosen to invest in his property.

Butler, an irascible 69-year-old, is the kind of landlord who never would have to worry about coming out on the wrong side of a rental housing code. In his mind, the maintenance of private property is no less than a sacred trust--one of the things that separates man from beast.

Clearly, to Butler, the people who own--and rent--the run-down-looking properties adjacent to his four-plex fall into the latter category.

He points out the peeling paint and parched front yard at one of the homes, where a lone, withered saguaro clings to life.

From his truck, Butler wags his finger at the property.
"He's my first customer if this code gets through, let me tell you," Butler warns.

Like many following the code's development--Butler sat on the original citizens' committee that helped hammer it out--he wonders just how far the city will go to appease the AMA.

"There's some things in there I think we can bend on, but I don't know how much of a compromise the AMA wants," he says. "My impression from sitting down with them before is that 'compromise' means doing it their way."

To appreciate just how groundbreaking a document Tempe's code would have been--and may still be, depending on how much of it survives the weeks ahead--it's necessary to understand what preceded it: the Arizona Residential Landlord Tenant Act.

The act sets out the basic ground rules between tenants and landlords, devoting only a small amount of ink to landlords' requirements to maintain their rentals in good shape, and even then in only in the broadest of terms.

And that's exactly how landlords' lobbyists have wanted it, over the years defeating numerous attempts to set more explicit guidelines for maintenance.

By contrast Tempe's code was a nuts-and-bolts kind of document almost mind-boggling in its minutiae. Among its 84 requirements:

* that each habitable room within a rental, except for kitchens, have at least 10 square feet of window space.

* that those windows be maintained in sound condition, with weather stripping that "prevents the entrance of vermin or excessive air escape or infiltration."

* that all front doors have peepholes.
* that all parking areas be free from wrecked or inoperable vehicles.
The code went on to spell out the temperature ranges to which all rentals must be kept: at least 70 degrees in winter, and no greater than 82 degrees in the summer if cooled by air conditioning, or 88 degrees if cooled by evaporative coolers.

And, finally, just in case something wasn't spelled out explicitly, the code dictated that rentals, inside and out, be "free from deterioration or slum-like conditions." That meant no ripped carpeting, no peeling paint on outside walls and no curling shingles on roofs--even if those shingles still prevented rain from entering the house or apartment.

Much of the document was the handiwork of Tempe housing inspector David Christ, a retired Tempe cop who went back to work for the city in 1995. Coincidentally, Christ was Tuffli's superior officer at the time the city tried to get Tuffli kicked off the force.

For Tuffli, the fight is clearly personal.
"To have someone of David Christ's low integrity having that kind of power is completely unacceptable to me," Tuffli says.

Christ refuses to discuss Tuffli, other than to say his former subordinate "has an extremely long memory."

A tidy, tightlipped man in his mid-40s with a neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard, Christ would have had the responsibility of enforcing the code should it have survived the September referendum. It remains to be seen what role he will have once the code is revised.

From his neat cubicle at Tempe City Hall, Christ explains that the code borrowed standards spelled out by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and by the City of Phoenix's own neighborhood ordinance which, so far, has not raised the ire of the AMA because it does not single out rental housing.

The code also borrowed from laws already on the books in such college towns as Madison, Wisconsin; Ann Arbor, Michigan; and Boulder, Colorado.

In contrast to those codes, some of which require landlords to license their properties annually, submit to mandatory periodic inspections and allow tenants to apply for lower rents if landlords refuse to make repairs, Christ says Tempe's is modest.  

"I was told when I took this position, 'We don't want to punish the 95 percent of the landlords out there who are doing a good job for the 5 percent who aren't,'" Christ says.

Such assurances, however, did little to appease landlord lobbyists, who said the code gave the city too much latitude and offered no guarantees that landlords whose properties are otherwise clean and well-kept will be exempted from making costly retrofits.

"We had no problem with the code's intent," explains the AMA's Rees. "We fully stood behind efforts to erase blight, and to address health and safety issues. We just had a few small problems with the code itself."

Specifically, Rees says, the AMA was troubled that the code held all rentals to the same new standard--even those built in compliance with past housing codes.

The AMA, which represents the state's largest rental and management companies, has been demonized by its opposition as carpetbaggers trying to force their will onto the city, a charge that Rees dismisses.

Rees points out that 13,000 of the rental units in Tempe are AMA units. "This is as much our business as it is anyone's," he says.

Rees sees nightmarish scenarios of clean, well-maintained older property where all of the windows are too small or the air conditioners, engineered to past standards, don't cool to the code's exacting specifications.

Christ shakes his head. Even if such cases had cropped up, which is doubtful, he says, the city would have considered each one individually.

"That's selective enforcement," responds Wayne Kaplan, another AMA representative. "What the city is basically saying is, 'Look, we only want to go after the really bad guys--you guys are fine.' Well, we think that's a very sloppy way to go about it."

About the only thing that will satisfy the AMA, Rees says, is a grandfather clause barring the city from applying the code retroactively.

Code backers have said that such a change will effectively gut the ordinance.

Located just a mile east of the ASU campus, the Fiesta Park Apartments are a world away from the new vision taking shape along Mill Avenue.

Rents in the late-'60s-vintage complex average around $500 a month for a two-bedroom apartment--among the lowest in Tempe. Not surprisingly, many of the property's tenants are working-class, do not speak English and do not stay for more than a few months at a time.

Nine years ago, Ken Volk moved into Fiesta Park from upstate New York. He has not budged since.

Fiesta Park "was a garden back then," Volk remembers.
But all that changed five years ago, shortly after the apartment's owner brought in new managers, Volk says. First, the landscaping began to die off. Next, Volk says, maintenance at the 60-unit complex began to slide.

A spry, petite man with elfin features and boundless energy, Volk radiates empathy in a sort of 12-Step, Stuart Smalleyesque way.

"You are a nice person," the message on his answering machine intones. "I am fine, too. Ultimately, life is full of goodness. I love you. Please leave a message of warm and friendly thoughts. Goodbye."

There is a side to Volk, however, that is not full of goodness--at least, not to the landlords whom Volk thinks are preying on their tenants. One of those is George Clancy, who owns Fiesta Park along with more than 2,000 other units throughout the Valley.

Volk says when he saw that tenants' concerns were going unheeded, he started to organize, going door to door at Fiesta Park and eventually convincing more than a dozen tenants in the 60-unit complex to join an ad hoc tenants' association.

Shortly afterward, Clancy gave Volk 30 days' notice that he was being evicted. Volk fought back and defeated the eviction.

Today, out of a small donated office in the back corner of a Phoenix neighborhood-center building just west of Sky Harbor International Airport on 16th Street, Volk heads the Arizona Tenants' Association, an organization of "around 300" members that subsists solely on the $25 fee it charges for its services.

In addition to helping stymie scores of evictions across the Valley and forcing reluctant landlords to make repairs to their properties, Volk has managed to cultivate strong backers at Tempe City Hall who have repeatedly held up Fiesta Park as an example of why the city needs the code.

Like Bill Butler, Volk sat on the committee which helped create the code. He describes the AMA as "the sleaziest lobbyists in Arizona," and did just about everything in his power to thwart them as the election neared. In fact, five of the disqualified arguments Tuffli uncovered came from Volk's fax machine.  

Of Tuffli's victory, Volk says, "It just goes to show that any kook with a few bucks behind him can screw things up."

The code's future now rests largely in the hands of two men: neighborhood activist John "Hut" Hutson and AMA landlord John Bebbling, who have been tapped by the city to negotiate a truce.

Just about everyone hails the two as good representatives of their respective interests.

Volk describes the coming negotiations between Hutson and Bebbling as "a collision between matter and antimatter."

"We'll have to wait to see if the code survives," Volk says.
As for Fritz Tuffli, you might think he would finally enjoy some small measure of contentment now that he has managed to defeat the city in court and derail an election.

You would be wrong.
First, he says, he has been snubbed in all of the news reports that have come out since Judge Myers' ruling against Tempe.

"You'd think they'd mention the one person who was responsible for making it [the ruling] actually happen," he says.

Then, there's this: Tuffli actually wants the election to take place because, he says, the code would lose and "the matter would be settled for good."

"The Rental Housing Code was brought to a vote by the people, not by the city," he says. "Now all the city's saying is, 'Hey, since the judge says we can't rig the election for the outcome we want, we don't want the election anymore.'"

He may have a point, but it may prove moot now that everyone except him has embraced the art of compromise.

"After they voted to kill the code, [Tempe Mayor Neil] Giuliano said he had spoken to both sides, and that everyone had agreed to sit down and work things out," Tuffli says. "Well, they never called me.


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