Greensboro’s RUCO among handful of proactive rental housing inspection programs across state
Members of the real estate and development sector might be expected to oppose proactive rental housing inspections programs such as Greensboro’s Rental Unit Certificate of Occupancy.
After all, the Greensboro Landlords Association, whose members belong to the industry that is most directly affected, have made it clear that would like nothing better than to have the ordinance wiped off the books. They’re joined by the Triad Real Estate and Building Industries Coalition, or TREBIC, an umbrella organization that represents trade associations and member companies in fields related to development, construction, real estate brokerage, property management and banking across Guilford County.
TREBIC President Marlene Sanford said her organization’s membership is unified in opposition to RUCO.
Mark off at least one exception with Robbie Perkins, whose commercial real estate company NAI Piedmont Triad is a member of TREBIC and who found his entry into municipal politics as a founder in the mid-1980s of the governmental affairs section of the Greensboro Board of Realtors, a forerunner of TREBIC. An at-large member of the Greensboro City Council, Perkins has made no secret of his interest in being mayor someday.
“I’ve heard that RUCO’s success in Greensboro has caused other cities to look at the program,” Perkins said. “The quality of Winston’s housing stock and High Point’s housing stock are nowhere near what Greensboro’s is. And Greensboro’s housing stock has improved tremendously since we implemented RUCO.”
Perkins recently ran into Philip Price, a commercial real estate broker in Winston-
Salem who served as mayor of Eden from 1993 to 2005.
“Don’t you dare get rid of RUCO,” Price said to Perkins. “It’s one of the best things you’ve ever done.”
Reached by phone, Price confirmed that he holds Greensboro’s RUCO program in high regard.
“I admired the stance that Greensboro took on the program,” he said. “There’s so many benefits. I think it eliminates problems that end up in police action. I think it’s the right thing to do. In my mind, it elevates them as a city that looks after their people.”
Kelly Stultz, director of planning and inspections for the city of Eden, describes the city’s program as a “very active housing code, and said based on a study she obtained from the NC School of Government, she has considered suggesting that her city council adopt a RUCO-like program.
The neighboring city of Reidsville, meanwhile, adopted a proactive rental property inspections program in 1995, almost a decade before Greensboro. According to a 2008 paper submitted by UNC Chapel Hill graduate student Carol Cooley Hickey, Greensboro and Reidsville are two of five North Carolina cities that have adopted ordinances making it illegal for landlords to lease residential units that have not been certified as meeting minimum housing code. Two other cities are Statesville and Morganton. The city of Asheville phased out its program in 2003.
Greensboro’s program is perhaps the most ambitious in that it is the largest city among the cohort, but its program is not the most comprehensive. While Greensboro still requires all landlords to obtain a Rental Unit Certificate of Occupancy before leasing residential units, the city council voted in 2008 to scale back from universal inspections to sampling.
In contrast, the city of Reidsville’s website indicates that “housing inspections are triggered by the opening of any new water accounts for city residences.” The website also states, “This policy helps ensure that within three years all 2,685 rental units in Reidsville are in compliance with the city’s minimum housing code. This makes the city of Reidsville a safer place in which to live, improves property values and encourages reinvestment in our housing stock.”
Winston-Salem City Councilman Dan Besse, who chairs the community development, housing and general government committee, said Greensboro’s RUCO program is among a set of policies by neighboring cities that Winston-Salem will be reviewing as it seeks to improve housing conditions.
At-large High Point Councilman Latimer Alexander IV said that with the exception of Ward 1 Councilwoman Bernita Sims, his colleauges have shown little interest in emulating Greensboro’s RUCO program.
“We have not had any formal discussion on the council level with rental inspections,” he said. “We have watched what has gone on over in Greensboro. They seem to be expending a great deal of revenue and personnel time for a very thin return on changing the market place.”
Sanford said TREBIC has advised the city of High Point on how to deal with substandard housing, suggesting “that they target those problem properties with all the resources they need. And not waste resources on the other 90 percent of rental units, like Greensboro’s RUCO program does.”
Interest among neighboring cities in Greensboro’s RUCO program is not quite at a groundswell level.
Tyler Mulligan, an assistant professor of public law and government at the UNC School of Government said he has fielded three or four phone calls from local government staff inquiring about rental inspections, and Greensboro’s is one of the programs he suggests they take a look at. Mulligan said he would like to conduct some comparative research about various rental housing inspection programs across the state.
“The call is, ‘A city council member has suggested we having a housing rental inspection program. Can we do that legally?’” Mulligan said, adding that he often mentions Greensboro in the context of it being “an example of a larger city that has tried to grapple with the scope of the ordinance and the administrative burdens that accompany it; that I think what’s instructive, at least from my limited perspective, about Greensboro is their sampling program.”
A task force of the RUCO Advisory Board is scheduled to meet on Friday at the headquarters of TREBIC for the purpose of gathering “information for modifications to the RUCO ordinance,” according to language in a city notice. Along with TREBIC and the landlords association, the task force includes representatives of the Greensboro Housing Coalition and the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress, which have pledged to oppose any changes that would remove the proactive elements of the ordinance.
Sanford has argued that the current ordinance is unnecessarily costly to local taxpayers and unfairly burdens good landlords who take care of their properties.
“In a nutshell, it wastes resources on the 90 percent or more properties that are in good condition,” she said. “So far, the city has spent almost $3 million, inspecting about 35,000 rental units, at least 90 percent of which don’t need it. They could have pummeled the problem properties for less than a million dollars and gotten them cleaned up in a fraction of the time.”
Not all members of the real estate professions concur, as evidenced by the remarks of Philip Price, the commercial broker and former mayor. Price’s company does not hold a membership in TREBIC, which covers only Guilford County.
“I think honestly it can be a savings to the landlord if they find things that need to be repaired, and keep their tenants happy,” Price said. “Sometimes other departments are involved, particularly when you get into things that involve health and safety. It should be dealt with up front.”