City Hall

Licata Proposes Universal Rental-Housing Inspection

By Erica C. Barnett March 28, 2012

At a meeting of the city council's housing committee this afternoon, City Council member Nick Licata proposed requiring the city's Department of Planning and Development to inspect all rental-housing properties in the city over a ten-year period.

The city has been discussing rental-housing inspection for several years. In 2010, in response to a state law setting a statewide standard for housing inspections, the city passed its own "placeholder" housing inspection law with the intent of revisiting the legislation after a group of stakeholders had a chance to weigh in. (If the council had not acted, the state rules, which were less stringent than what many advocates wanted, would have gone into effect automatically).

After a drawn-out stakeholder process, a proposal from the Department of Planning and Development that tenant advocates rejected as too landlord-friendly, the council's housing committee considered a proposal today that Licata said was improved, but still "a little too vague."[pullquote]Harrell---in a Romney moment---questioned the notion that vulnerable tenants would be afraid to file complaints against landlords ("Most of the people I know wouldn't hesitate to complain," he said.)[/pullquote]

The main sticking point with the latest version of the legislation was that it requires only random inspections of rental housing units, and does not specify how many units must be inspected each year. Only building owners who have been reprimanded under the existing, complaint-based system (which tenant advocates say doesn't work because it opens tenants to the threat of retaliation from landlords) would be subject to automatic inspection.

"We want to do more inspections where we know there are problems," DPD code compliance director Karen White said today. At the same time, she said, "We want to have the capability of being out in the community finding problems that the residents aren't going to tell us about" because they fear retaliation from their landlords.

Tenants at today's meeting told stories about sewage and gas leaks that gave them respiratory problems; roaches that descended on their kids when they turned out the lights at night; and pets that nearly died because of unsanitary conditions.

Although council member Bruce Harrell---in a bit of a Mitt Romney moment---questioned the notion that vulnerable tenants would be afraid to file formal complaints against their landlords with the city ("Most of the people I know wouldn't hesitate to complain")---council member Sally Bagshaw disagreed, recalling an apartment she lived in during law school that had mushrooms growing in the shower. "I didn't know where to turn," she said.

Under Licata's proposal, the city would start out by inspecting 7,000 rental properties with three units or more, gradually phasing up the number of units it licenses and inspects over ten years. Within five years, all of the city's estimated 42,000 rental properties would be licensed, and within 10 years, all buildings would have been inspected.
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