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Greensboro housing dispute fought in statewide arena

by Jordan Green

The house at 405 Law Street across from Washington Elementary in Greensboro boasts new windows, a new coat of paint on its porch and planters bracketing the steps. Dragonfly ceramic tiles and figurines displayed in the front window attest to its tenant’s pride. The Agapion family, who own the property landlord, have weathered some seriously bad publicity over the decades for housing code violations at his properties.

The Agapions have become unlikely heroes in the eyes of some safe-housing advocates since the city of Greensboro implemented its Rental Unit Certificate of Occupancy program, commonly known as RUCO, in 2004.

“It was condemned and ordered demolished,” said Beth McKee Huger, executive director of the Greensboro Housing Coalition and one of the city’s most visible advocates for safe housing. “It looked like the wind would blow it over, just from the appearance. The first inspection was in February 2006, and it was condemned, but by May 2007 it was beautifully redone and it passed inspection with RUCO…. The Agapion family has a history of making very minimal repairs, and with this one there were very extensive repairs.”

She rattled off a litany of symptoms of neglect.

“The foundation wall was damaged. The roof needed to be replaced. The furnace wasn’t operable. The porch needed to be repaired or replaced. Some of the rafters were rotting. They did a really extensive redo of the house rather than just patching things together. Irene Agapion told me that they are working hard to get their RUCO; that’s how I know that it was the ordinance and not some other reason they’ve repaired this house.”

The program provides for mandatory and periodic inspection of all rental properties in the city. It works on a five-year cycle and allows landlords to get their properties up to code before setting up an appointment with the city’s building inspections division.

Inspection Manager Dan Reynolds said 29,000 out of the city’s 32,000 units have been certified, with the first deadline approaching at the end of the year.

The city has some hard data to quantify its success: Code violations in May were down to 768, compared to a high of about 1,400 in 2005, McKee-Huger said.

Advocates for the program and city leaders are warily eyeing the state Senate bill entitled “Housing Conditions/Inspections” that they contend would have nullified the RUCO program in its original draft. The legislation requires cities and counties to establish probable cause before inspecting buildings. The bill that passed the Senate on May 23 included an amendment exempting cities with programs created before October 2007.

Under the original bill, the city’s seven inspectors would have ended up waiting for calls from tenants and neighbors about suspected code violations.

“We would actually go back to a complaint-driven system,” Reynolds said.

There are myriad reasons tenants in substandard housing might not report code violations, McKee-Huger said.

“Tenants who are not aware of how to report or who are afraid to report, certainly Hispanics and other immigrants often don’t know how or are afraid,” she said. “Elderly people, disabled people, people who maybe their current landlord would repair things but they’ve had so many landlords that ignored them or threatened them in the past, they’ll be afraid to report it to the city.”

Acting City Attorney Becky Jo Peterson-Buie has vowed to monitor the short session to ensure that Greensboro’s exemption is maintained, and in an April briefing session with the city council she outlined concerns that the Senate bill imposes a criminal standard, probable cause, on housing code, which is a civil matter.

Under civil law, reasonable belief is an adequate threshold to justify inspections. And under current state law, evidence of deteriorated conditions on the outside of a building comprises reasonable grounds for inspection of the inside of the dwelling. Not so, under the proposed legislation.

The Senate bill specifies that the threshold for establishing probable cause is a documented history of code violations by the landlord, complaints from tenants or actual knowledge of unsafe conditions within the building that can only be gathered by government officials who happen to see a collapsing ceiling or standing water in the course of routine activities.

The Greensboro Human Relations Commission has joined the vigilance brigade, too. The commission passed a resolution on June 4 decrying the “probable cause” language in a companion bill filed in the House in the 2007-2008 session, and requesting that the city lobby state lawmakers to protect RUCO and champion its merits.

The human relations commission’s reference to the House bill, which did not meet the cross-over deadline to be considered in this year’s short session, irks Clarke Martin, executive director of the Triad Apartment Association. That bill is dead, Martin said.

“Isn’t spooky that the city of Greensboro is exempted from this statute, and they’re fighting tooth and nail against the bill,” he said.

Martin and his cohorts at the Triad Apartment Association were in Raleigh last week lobbying for the housing inspection bill. They managed to get face time with 23 out of the 35 lawmakers from the region. The Apartment Association of North Carolina, with which the Triad association is affiliated, is also promoting the bill.

Martin makes no secret of his disdain for RUCO, and in a sense the tiff between the city and the industry association amounts to a statewide battle cloaked as a local skirmish.

“It makes no sense for the city to devote its limited resources and to have inspectors walking around award-winning properties for days and days,” he said. “You take a 600-unit community and inspect those units, and think how many man-hours that takes. We’ve always known where the bad landlords are. Sick ’em. We believe in repeat-offender programs that have punitive measures.”

Just as safe-housing advocates hold up the Agapions’ real-estate company as a poster-child for progress in housing conditions, the apartment industry regards them as something of a pariah. It’s not the city’s inspection program that should take the credit for cleaning up substandard housing, Martin said, but rather the advocacy community and the press.

“There has been an improvement, but I would say it was not because of RUCO,” he said. “It’s because of the Greensboro Housing Coalition and because of the investigative reporting of your competitor, Lorraine Ahearn [at the News & Record]. They were able to bring significant pressure to bear on a real bad landlord in town that the Greensboro Engineering and Inspection Department couldn’t do anything about for years.”

Reynolds said Greensboro city officials have met with their counterparts in Raleigh through the League of Municipalities, and other cities have indicated interest in adopting similar periodic inspection programs.

“I just think Greensboro is in the forefront of that whole housing issue with RUCO,” he said. “It’s just unfortunate that all 100 counties across North Carolina don’t have the same kind of feel for safe housing. I hope we’re able to keep Greensboro’s program intact and help the other jurisdictions across the state improve their programs. I hope that the legislature would be trying to work out a win-win situation for people who have to rent housing.”

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

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