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E-mail hints at relaxing rental inspection procedure

by Jordan Green

As the city of Greensboro nears complete certification of more than 30,000 properties in its rental housing stock, the city’s inspections director has signaled to property management industry a willingness to exempt some properties from mandatory inspection, while reassuring safe- housing advocates that the city will not tolerate substandard housing.

The Rental Unit Certificate of Occupancy program, or RUCO, was a signature accomplishment of the late Claudette Burroughs-White, who died after retiring as council representative for District 2 in 2005. The program makes inspection of all rental properties mandatory, and the city gave itself five years to complete its first cycle. Certificates of occupancy are withheld until housing code violations are corrected. Under the rental unit ordinance, landlords who fail to make repairs can be fined and ordered to vacate substandard units. “The real-estate community would like to see targeted inspections,” said Peter Placentino, vice president of property management for Brown Investment Properties. “Go after those that don’t take care of their property; don’t punish those that do.” Prior to RUCO, rental housing in Greensboro was regulated through a complaint-driven system in which city inspectors waited to hear from tenants, many of whom put up with code violations to avoid running afoul of unscrupulous landlords. Engineering and Inpsections Director Butch Simmons outlined “a list of proposed changes to the current RUCO program that would take effect in 2009” in a July 10 e-mail to Placentino that was recently obtained by YES! Weekly. The current ordinance holds that apartment complexes with 50 or more individual units may be inspected through a sampling, and Simmons’ e-mail to Placentino suggests the city might be willing to scale back inspections and to possibly grant permanent certification to properties that receive no complaints. “If no complaints resulting in a loss of a RUCO certificate [occur] within the 5 year period the existing certificates would remain valid,” Simmons wrote to Placentino. Remaining items in Simmons’ proposal include provisions requiring properties that fall into disrepair to be re-inspected, either through a sampling of units or all units, depending on the number of violations; maintaining the International Property Maintenance Code as the city’s standard; and applying “the program to newly annexed areas.”

“I serve on the RUCO Board as a representative of District 3,” Placentino said Monday. “I’m also on the board of the Triad Apartment Association. The apartment association is a member of TREBIC. That association, as well as TREBIC and the Greensboro Landlords Association has been meeting informally to discuss the effect of any RUCO changes. “I believe I’m probably one of the first people Butch called before RUCO was even put into play,” Placentino added. “As an outcome of the group meeting informally with the timeline [for the first cycle of inspections] looming, I asked to meet with Butch to see what his thoughts were.” Simmons downplayed the significance of his e-mail to Placentino, and declined to clarify whether the first item on his “list of proposed changes” should be understood as providing for permanent certification for rental properties that remain free of complaints over a five year probationary period, or as maintaining the current five-year cycle for mandatory inspections. “There’s got to be a way that if you keep up your property you shouldn’t be subjected to the same scrutiny as those that don’t,” he said. “We are committed to keeping the city as clean and safe as we can. It’s about having safe and healthy houses. I think that’s a very noble cause, and I don’t think anyone can question the results over the past three and a half to four years.” A system reliant on tenants to bring substandard rental properties to the city’s attention would not adequately protect renters from dangerous and substandard conditions, in the view of Lori Loosemore, the city’s supervisor of neighborhood support. “In the past, people didn’t know we were here,” she said. “They were scared to call because they were afraid their rent was going to go up if they complained. They were afraid their landlord was going to evict them. We have people from different countries, and some people don’t trust the government. If we go back to the complaint-driven system, it will go back to the way it was, and people will be afraid to call.” Despite being on record as listing proposed changes to the RUCO program to Placentino, Simmons insisted that any proposal would come from a group of “stakeholders,” who would in turn recommend changes to the city council. Simmons

saidhe and his staff are in the process of convening the group andconfirmed that likely stakeholders would include property managementcompanies, in addition to industry representatives such as the TriadReal Estate and Building Industry Coalition, or TREBIC, the TriadApartment Association and the Greensboro Landlords Association on one side; and neighborhood and tenant advocacy groups such as the Greensboro Neighborhood Association and the Greensboro Housing Coalition on the other. Placentino said the first stakeholders meeting takes place Thursday. Manyof those entities are also represented on the 15-member Rental UnitCertificate Advisory Board. “We’ve had, gosh, about three meetings withdifferent organizations that have a vested interest in the rentalmarket, and so far they have a concern about two things,” said DanReynolds, the city’s code enforcement manager. “One, that to continueon with RUCO like it is for the good units is a waste of cityresources. They want to change the ordinance to deal withproblem units. And, of course, you have folks that are still of themindset that good units don’t need inspection.” In the midstof such rumblings of change, safe housing advocates have taken asomewhat conciliatory stance, and expressed trust in Simmons. “We’rewilling to consider processes that kind of balance the amount of timeand energy from the city staff and property owners one hand, but makesure all the places are up to standard, on the other,” said GreensboroHousing Coalition Executive Director Beth McKee- Huger, who attended anAug. 7 Rental Unit Certificate Advisory Board meeting in which Simmonsoutlined some of the possible changes to the program. “I’drather come down on the side of re inspecting more places and makingsure we don’t let the ones that are substandard fall through thecracks,” she added. “I don’t think we can count on complaints to knowwhere things are slipping.” Jay Ovittore, a professional housepainter who chairs the city’s housing committee, noted that he hasworked with Ray Trapp, interim executive director of the TriadApartment Association, through the Guilford County Democratic Party. “Ithink he’s going to be a good guy to work with,” Ovittore said. “Ithink it’s going to be a situation where we can come to a compromise.Obviously, both sides have things they’re not going to bend on.”

Placentino,who serves on the Rental Unit Certificate Advisory Board, indicated inan Aug. 22 e-mail that his company holds no vested interest in theoutcome of the tussle. Brown Investment Properties is a Greensboro realestate company with 2,392 apartment units under its control andinvestments in the Carolinas, Virginia and Georgia. “Asfar as any proposed changes to the current RUCO ordinance and itseffect on our company, there is really no effect positive or negative,”he wrote. “We make every effort to maintain our property and those wemanage for other owners in good condition at all times.” CouncilwomanGoldie Wells, Burroughs-White’s successor in District 2, said shefavors maintaining “ongoing inspections,” but added that Simmons’proposals to Placentino “might have some merit.” RobbiePerkins, a Republican member of the non-partisan city council and areal-estate developer who often votes with the more liberal andAfrican-American members of the council, indicated he holds fullconfidence in Simmons’ handling of changes to the city’s rentalinspection program. “Butch Simmons is someone I place a highlevel of trust in his judgment and ability,” Perkins said. “Butch isthe one who developed the RUCO ordinance. If he feels it needs to beadjusted, I will support him. City council shouldn’t be getting intothe details of RUCO. Does it have a goal that is laudable? Yes.”Neither council member expressed any discomfort about Simmonsconferring with a representative of the property management industryahead of serious talks between members of the “stakeholders group.” “RUCOhas achieved a lot,” Perkins said. “Our housing is much better than itwas five years ago. If the folks that are managing the program say theycan improve it and this is how to do it, let ’er go. We need to stopmicromanaging staff. Are the changes reasonable? Yes. Are therecommendations being made by someone who knows what they’re doing?Yes. Why should I dispute that?” Asked whether amendments to the rentalhousing ordinance brought to council for approval by Simmons werelikely to garner the required to five-vote majority to pass, Perkinsgave a simple answer. “I would hope so.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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