Rental inspection ordinance rejected
An ordinance that would have allowed landlords to use private inspectors to evaluate their rental properties instead of city code enforcement officers fell flat Monday when council narrowly decided against it.
Only Mayor Polly Sierer and Councilmen Luke Chapman and Stu Markham were in favor.
The bill was presented as a compromise between city officials and Newark landlords, who spent the past several months coming up with a solution to the number of rental properties behind on their annual inspections, which are required by code and check for health and safety concerns like working smoke detectors and secure railings.
Tenants don’t legally have to let code enforcement officers inside, and in 2015, approximately 40 percent of units were not inspected.
Last year, the city considered seeking a state code amendment that would have let the city obtain warrants so code enforcement officers could enter rental properties where tenants had previously denied an inspection, but backed off after hearing negative feedback from tenants and landlords who were outraged at the idea of the government entering their properties without their consent.
The bill ultimately failed to obtain sponsors before the end of the legislative session.
After meeting with the Newark Landlord Association over the summer, city staff began drafting an ordinance for third-party inspectors and presented the final version on Monday.
“[This is] another option for those that believe the city inspectors are invading their space,” said Dave Culver, interim planning and development director and manager of Newark’s code enforcement division.
Under the ordinance, landlords could choose either a city inspector or hire a private inspector to perform their annual inspections, but if they choose a private inspector, that person must be approved and licensed by the city to perform inspections for rental properties. He or she must at least be certified by the American Association of Code Enforcement, the International Code Council or the Board of Home Inspectors and have state and city business licenses before applying for an inspection license from the city.
Landlords who own single-family units would receive a $75 credit on their rental licenses if they use a third-party inspection service, while landlords who own buildings with 14 or fewer units would get $20 per unit. There would be no credit for landlords of buildings 15 or more units, and the ordinance would not apply to fraternity and sorority houses, which can only be evaluated by a code enforcement official.
During an inspection, the private inspector would have to use a city-approved rental inspection checklist to make sure the property meets all applicable code requirements. Violations would have to be addressed within 20 days of the inspection, or the city could revoke the property’s rental permit. Serious conditions that impose an imminent danger to property or life safety, however, would have to be immediately reported to the city and failure to do so could result in the city revoking the inspector’s license, the ordinance states.
Properties would need to be inspected both before a rental permit is issued and annually for rental license renewal, but it would be the owner or landlord’s responsibility to schedule those inspections and allow the inspector to come inside. Landlords would be charged a late fee if they do not provide the city with the inspection results within 90 days of the renewal notice.
The ordinance holds private inspectors to strict standards and states they must reapply annually to renew their license, which costs $250.
Also, at least two inspections per year would have to be accompanied by a code official or the inspector would have to attend an annual meeting with the city’s Planning and Development Department to review every inspection he or she submitted in the past 12-month period. With advance consent of the tenants, the code official could reinspect any property to assure the inspector’s sufficiency and accuracy. The city could also revoke inspectors licenses at any time if they are not doing a good job as well as deny their license renewal, and both could be appealed to the Board of Building, Fire, Property Maintenance and Sidewalk Appeals.
Councilman Jerry Clifton, however, didn’t think the ordinance was necessary. He said rental inspections, whether conducted by code enforcement or a third-party, don’t stop tenant injuries and cannot prevent tragic incidents from occurring.
Clifton was referring to Willem H. Golden, the 20-year-old man from Cohasset, Mass., who died after he fell off the third-floor roof of a house on West Main Street on March 19, 2016. Golden was visiting friends at the University of Delaware and was on a small flat area of the third-story roof by himself when he slipped and fell.
After the incident, city officials told the Newark Post they were “at a loss” for what to do to prevent similar occurrences but were looking into opportunities to work with landlords.
Clifton called the ordinance “feel-good legislation,” claiming it is only being discussed so council and city officials can say they are doing something.
“If I had my way, I would scrap the entire inspection program. It would be gone. I would scrap it in favor of a self-certification program and tenant education program,” Clifton said.
“Why are we burdening staff with all of this and putting another layer in that probably will turn out to be something that just isn’t really going to make much of any difference and I would be willing to submit probably no difference than what we had before,” he added.
Culver argued that while there is no way to tell how many lives rental inspections have saved, inspectors check carbon monoxide and smoke detectors and make sure stairways are sturdy. He said it is likely a fire or fall was prevented through inspection.
Mary Connolly has been renting in District 2 for the past four years and told council she prefers the city evaluate her home over a third-party inspector. She said she doesn’t feel comfortable leaving the decision up to the landlord because that means she doesn’t have a say who enters her home.
“I’ve heard the expression, ‘We’re going to violate your rights, but it’s for your own good,’ and that doesn’t sit well with me,” Connolly said.
Despite the ordinance having the support of the Newark Landlord Association, a handful of landlords turned out Monday in opposition.
Opal Palmer, who owns a rental property on Farnsworth Road, called the bill a farce and said it infringes on tenants’ constitutional rights.
“It’s intrusive and invasive with many ulterior motives attached,” she said.
She added that it only focuses on single-family rental properties and not owner-occupied homes, and there is an “obvious bias” toward student tenants.
“The proposed bill is prejudice as far as I’m concerned,” Palmer said.
Glenn Schmalhofer, who owns at least 20 rental properties in Newark, echoed Palmer’s remarks. He said freedom and liberty is the first priority, not health and safety, and most of his tenants do not want government officials coming into their homes.
“People have the right to choose who’s going to go in their house,” he said.
Markham argued that the ordinance partially moves inspections out of the city and into the private sector, which could be a good thing. He said the landlords asked for a compromise and council should consider it, regardless of who showed up to speak at Monday’s meeting.
“I know they don’t all agree, but it’s a solution that’s been presented,” Markham said.
Since the motion to approve the bill failed, the city will continue inspecting properties using its own code enforcement officers.
City Manager Carol Houck said she will be meeting with staff to determine the next steps.
“I am concerned about the lack of support regarding our efforts to engage the Newark Landlords Association and ultimately deliver an ordinance that, I believe, provided a win-win outcome and that addressed most of the landlord’s concerns,” Houck said Wednesday in an email message. “The fact remains that we’re being turned away 40 percent of the time. This is problematic when our code dictates we will inspect rentals on an annual basis.”