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Landlords and advocates team up in demise of inspection program

by Jordan Green

A panel handpicked by the city of Greensboro’sinspection department agreed last week to eliminate mandatoryinspection of rental properties and grant lifetime certification tothose that have been documented as being up to code.

Thecity has received widespread publicity and acclaim for nearing completeinspection of rental housing as a five-year cycle begun in 2004 comesto a close at the end of this year. Dan Reynolds, the city’s codeenforcement manager, said as of July 31 the city had inspected andcertified 31,351 out 32,392 properties — or 96.8 percent of the total. Still,the total number only counts rental units identified in 2003 throughcity planning records and doesn’t include units that have come into therental market since then or those added through annexation. It alsoexcludes dormitories and nursing homes. An investigation by YES! Weekly suggeststhat less than half of the city’s rental housing stock has beeninspected and certified. The newspaper requested certificates ofoccupancy for 25 separate addresses confirmed as occupied rentalproperties. The blind sample — to ensure reliable results, the reporterdid not know the properties’ status beforehand — included bothapartment complexes and single-family homes. Many of the addresses weregleaned through personal contacts. In response to the request, inspections staff indicated that only 11 of the 25 properties had been inspected and certified. Reynoldssaid he was not surprised by the result. “Aunt May might have juststarted renting the family home,” he said. “A lot of what we have to dois education of new landlords. These places will continue to be rentedunless we come up with a way to identify it through the tax records.” Engineeringand Inspections Director Butch Simmons said once the five-yearinspection cycle ends in December the city will start identifyingrental properties that previously fell through the cracks. “Allthe properties will be inspected at the end of the year,” he said.“Because of the education process people will be looking for thatinspection certificate before people rent anything.” Eliminatingmandatory inspections of the city’s rental housing stock willessentially return Greensboro to a complaint driven system. Citystaff members have warned in the past that many tenants, particularlyimmigrants, are reluctant to bring code violations to the attention oftheir landlord or city inspectors.

A handful of tenants who requested anonymity told YES! Weekly theytolerate violations in their homes for a variety of reasons, includingconcern that landlords would retaliate by pursuing eviction or that thecosts of repairs would be passed along to them in the form of renthikes. Tenants interviewed ranged from a professional to a man who hasbeen at risk of homelessness in the past. In the face of heavy pressurefrom real estate interests to scrap the certification programaltogether, representatives of a tenant advocacy group and neighborhoodassociations proposed a new system requiring property owners to vouchfor the good standing of their rental property. The specially appointedstakeholder group, which met with city staff in the basement of theinspection department building on 4th Street passes its recommendationup through the more formal Rental Unit Certificate of Occupancy Board,also known as the RUCO Board, to the city council. The council, inturn, is almost certain to approve the amendment, considering thatrepresentatives of tenants and the property management industry alikeback the recommendation. In a remarkable display ofcooperation, the jovial and collegial group concluded an agreement inabout two hours. It largely ratified a handful of face to-face meetingsand e-mail exchanges between representatives of various real estatelobbies and Simmons. “Butch had thrown out that the RUCOcertificate would be permanent unless the certificate had beenrevoked,” said Marlene Sanford, president of the Triad Real Estate andBusiness Industries Coalition, adding, “I think we talked about whetherthe ordinance could be sunsetted. I don’t think we came to anyresolution on that.” Changes to the rental inspection program werediscussed in a July 10 e mail from Simmons to Peter Placentino, vicepresident for property management at Brown Investment Properties, aboard member of the Triad Apartment Associationand a key broker in the agreement sealed on Aug. 28. “If no complaintsresulting in a loss of a RUCO certificate [occur] within the 5 year period the existing certificates would remain valid,” Simmonswrote. Amy Williams, an Elon Law School student and intern with theGreensboro Neighborhood Congress, said her organization supportedautomatic renewal of the certificates. “If we have automatic renewalfor everyone,” she asked, “what is the point [of the program]?” “That’swhat we’ve been asking for years,” Sanford replied. Many ofthose meeting at the inspections department building on Aug. 28indicated that they are comfortable with doing away with mandatoryinspections. “Everything is complaint-driven,” said ToddRotruck, a designated representative of the Greensboro NeighborhoodCongress, who remodels houses for resale. “It would beconsistent for this board [RUCO] to function in the same manner.” BethMcKee-Huger, executive director of the Greensboro Housing Coalition,argued in favor of allowing property owners to police themselves. “Complaint-drivenalone did not take care of the problem,” she said. “I think that ratherthan automatic renewal, it would help for the owners to say, ‘I stillown this property. I manage it correctly, and I respond to calls forrepairs promptly.’ And if they don’t, then they get re-inspected.” Placentinopushed back. “Part of me, it just rubs me the wrong way that I have tocertify that I’m good,” he said. The panelists agreed on a proposal tohave property owners check off a questionnaire included in their annualproperty tax bill. The plan depends on the cooperation of the GuilfordCounty Tax Department. In theory, property owners would check off a boxstating that their property holds a certificate in good standing.Failure to do so would prompt a new inspection. The panelistsconcluded that an arrangement allowing property owners to reportannually on the status of their properties would render largelymeaningless any requirement that the certificates be periodicallyrenewed. “Do we need to renew certificates every five years,”asked Rotruck of the neighborhood congress, “or do we do lifetimecertification?” “Let’s do lifetime certification,” answered Sanford ofTREBIC. Placentino of Brown Investment Properties said heanticipated that the recommendations would be discussed in detail bythe RUCO Board, but would encounter few hurdles.

 “Ibelieve the proposed recommendations discussed today will be adopted bythe RUCO board, and recommended to council,” he said. Two key membersof the council’s liberal voting bloc have indicated comfort with thechanges under discussion. Mayor Yvonne Johnson enjoys strong supportfrom the real estate lobby, but often displays rhetorical sympathy forthe city’s poorest residents. At-large Councilman Robbie Perkins, aregistered Republican on the nonpartisan board, presides over one ofthe Triad’s largest commercial real estate companies. His liberalleanings have been displayed in votes to keep the White Street Landfillin northeast Greensboro closed and in his support of City Manager MitchellJohnson’shandling of the resignation of former police Chief David Wray. MayorJohnson indicated in comments two days before the agreement was madethat she would support such an amendment. “I would supportsome way of verifying that the property owner is still the propertyowner, and that certification of the property is in good standing, andthe property is in satisfactory condition,” she said. Perkins hasindicated full confidence in Simmons’ initiative to change the rentalinspection program in previous comments. “Are the changesreasonable? Yes,” he said. “Are the recommendations being made bysomeone who knows what they’re doing? Yes. Why should I dispute that?”The city council’s conservative bloc — a bipartisan coalitionconsisting of District 3 Councilman Zack Matheny, District 4 CouncilmanMike Barber and District 5 Councilwoman Trudy Wade — favoring reducedregulation and smaller government is also unlikely to oppose thechanges. At the conclusion of the deal hammered out in thebasement of the inspections department building on 4th Street,Placentino summed up the spirit of cooperation in a comment toReynolds. “Dan, let it be known there was a meeting of Greensboro citizens,” he said, “where everybody actually agreed on something.”

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

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