City Hall

Tenants, City in Talks About Rental Housing Inspection Program

By Erica C. Barnett February 9, 2012

The city's Department of Planning and Development is working with Mayor Mike McGinn and tenant advocates to craft a new version of proposed legislation that would require DPD to conduct random inspections of rental-housing units, which tenant advocates panned when DPD rolled out the first iteration last year. 

Tenant advocates have long pushed for a mandatory rental-housing inspection program, on the grounds that under the complaint-based system in place today, tenants are discouraged from speaking up about substandard housing conditions by fear of retaliation from their landlords. However, they generally opposed last year's proposal, viewing some of its provisions ("self-certification" by landlords, "drive-by" instead of interior inspections) as inadequate to protect tenants in substandard housing.

Representatives from the Tenants Union met with deputy mayor Darryl Smith yesterday to discuss the legislation. Tenants Union director Jonathan Martin referred a call to the group's community organizer, Emily Murphy, who has not returned calls for comment, and mayoral spokesman Aaron Pickus said he could not provide any information about the meeting.

However, it's not hard to guess what the Tenants Union's concerns were. The legislation, as proposed by DPD last year, included a number of landlord-friendly provisions, including, most egregiously as far as tenant advocates were concerned, a provision allowing landlords to "self-certify" that they were in compliance with city housing standards. In other words, landlords could simply sign a piece of paper saying their properties met all the requirements for a license (things like hot running water, working heat, a working smoke alarm, and operable entry doors). The only way DPD would find out a landlord was not in compliance would be if a tenant complained---the same problematic system we have today.

Also in the original legislation: DPD inspectors would only check for violations on the outside of a property. Inspectors could look at all parts of a building that were accessible to the public, but could only go inside if invited. Tenant advocates argued that such "drive-by" inspections might fail to catch many of the most egregious violations---things like illegally subdivided houses, lack of hot water, or faulty plumbing, which are not visible from the outside of a unit. DPD's proposal would require investigators to look inside just 10 percent of the units they inspect.

In a letter last month, council members Sally Clark and Nick Licata expressed questions and concerns about the legislation. Looking inside just 10 percent of inspected units, they said, "substantially reduces the scope of the program" compared to what the council originally envisioned. Additionally, the council members said that if the city allows "self-certification," DPD should commit to hiring inspectors to look at all self-certified units within three years. And they wrote that it's unclear what evidence during a drive-by inspection would trigger an internal inspection, as well as what standards a landlord would need to meet to pass inspection.

McGinn spokesman Aaron Pickus says the mayor's office is "at least a month out from starting to brief the council on proposed legislation." The next meeting of the council's housing committee is Feb. 22; it isn't scheduled to meet again until March 16.
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