Rental in­spec­tion ordinance re­jected

Newark Post - - FRONT PAGE - By KARIE SIM­MONS ksim­mons@ches­pub.com

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.”

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