City Hall

Mandatory Housing Inspection Moves Forward

By Erica C. Barnett May 12, 2010

The city council's Committee on the Built Environment had some tough questions this morning for representatives from the Department of Planning and Development, which supports a proposal to implement a mandatory, citywide rental-housing inspection law.

The proposal comes in response to a state law that creates a statewide standard for rental-housing inspection programs and gives cities warrant authority to enter rental units if a judge agrees there is probable cause to believe a tenant's health or safety is in danger. The standard in the state law—health and life safety—is less stringent than the one proposed in the city ordinance, which would require landlords to adhere to the city's housing code in order to get a rental license. If the city doesn't adopt its own inspection standard, the state law requires it to follow the state standard starting June 10.

The council's concerns this morning centered on three main issues:

1. The specific standards the new law would enforce. Council members asked whether they were too strict compared to the state law, whether they had been well-thought-out given the tight deadline, and whether they would have unintended consequences (like shutting down a landlord for minor code violations, or causing bad landlords to skip out on licensing).

Showing an image of a tenant who lived in a space between two walls in an apartment building, DPD code compliance director Karen White told council members, "the point I want to make really strongly is that under the state law, this kind of situation would not be addressed ... because it’s not a unit" according to the state law, which mandates random inspections of units identified by a building's owner. Additionally, White said, the state law would allow violations that didn't immediately threaten tenants' health and safety to slip through the cracks.

However, council members seemed unconvinced that the city law needed to go as far as it currently does—especially if, as council members have suggested, it's merely a "placeholder" to beat the deadline. "The standard of inspection is a big question," said committee chair Sally Clark. "What are we looking for? Is it the basic health and safety stuff or are we wanting to flag the DEFCON 4 level just below that as well?"

Council member Mike O'Brien added: "Whatever we put in place by June 10, even if the intent is that it’s just a placeholder and we’ll revisit it, it starts to become a straw man" and the starting point for changes. "I would rather be conservative with what we adopt" later this month.

2. The fact that the state law requires inspections of a random sample of units, as opposed to all units. In addition allowing landlords to hide units that don't qualify as units under the law, random inspections might not be comprehensive enough to reveal a building's problems. On the other hand, comprehensive inspections might be overly burdensome for landlords and the city.

"I still need to be convinced that the sampling is a problem," Clark said. However, she added, "If we’re silent on sampling [in the city proposal], then we’re saying that we subscribe to the state’s sampling methodology," which they might not want to do either, since the state would limit the sample to 20 percent of all units.

3. The fact that the state law was a compromise worked out between advocates for tenants (Columbia Legal Services) and landlords (the Retail Housing Association). Some council members expressed concern that the city law would violate that hard-fought compromise.

"The state law was adopted earlier this year with the support of unlikely bedfellows, and they reached something that they thought was a compromise that would address both landlords' rights and tenants' rights, council member Sally Bagshaw said. "I'm feeling that we’re not listening to the people who reached this solution."

The council has to vote on the proposal by May 26.
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