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Political kingmaker fights rental unit fine as talks break down over future of inspection program

by Jordan Green

Political consultant and landlord Bill Burckley (inset) has appealed a fine for renting an apartment at 102 S. Mendenhall St. without a Rental Unit Certificate of Occupancy. The future of the program has been the subject of heated debate. (photos by Jordan Green)

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Representatives of the real estate industry have been arguing over the past few weeks that the city of Greensboro should abandon proactive rental housing inspections, and focus resources on documented problem properties. They might be surprised to learn just where one of those properties is located.

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When Greensboro housing inspector Lori Loosemore visited Apartment B at 102 S. Mendenhall St. in College Hill in late January, she found an unheated unit, an outlet with an open ground and electrical outlets that were stripped of their plates and hanging by wires from the walls. An outlet with an open ground poses a risk of electrocution.

The antebellum mansion, known as the Nathaniel HD Wilson house, is owned by Greensboro Boxwood Associates, a company formed by political consultant Bill Burckley, his wife and civic leader Betty Cone. Burckley received $7,750 for his consulting services to Bill Knight, who defeated incumbent Yvonne Johnson in an upset last November. Cone, whose nonprofit organization Grassroots Productions organizes the annual Fun Fourth Festival in Greensboro, served as co-chair on Johnson’s campaign.

“The violations that we call life-safety issues are smoke detectors missing or not operating, and exposed wiring,” said Loosemore, who supervises the city’s housing inspectors and works in the field herself. “In the winter, a no-heat violation could be a serious one because people supplement with space heaters, usually kerosene, and those can lead to fires. You might have children that knock it over or a dog that knocks it over, or it’s next to some drapes.”

A complaint from the tenant prompted the city inspection at 102-B S. Mendenhall St. Greensboro Boxwood Associates received a letter on Jan. 28 noting that “due to the severity of the violations, you shall correct the conditions rendering the address unfit for human habitation” within 48 hours. The inspection also revealed several other less serious violations.

Cone said last week that Burckley told her that all of the violations had been corrected except for a receptacle that needs replacing, but that would be taken care of by Monday. Loosemore said that she has not been able to verify that the heat is working because of the outside temperature during the summer season.

Standard city inspection letters ordering repairs within 48 hours such as the one received by Burckley and Cone’s company, state that failure to comply “in a timely manner and with a sense of urgency” could result in a $200 civil penalty for the first violation day and $50 for every additional day that the property is not brought up to code, and could result in simultaneous civil and criminal proceedings. By that calculation, the landlords could owe an estimated $6,650.

In reality, Loosemore said, the city stopped taking intransigent landlords to court because judges rarely uphold fines under the thinking that the goal is simply to ensure that the repairs are made, and because the city lacks the resources to litigate such cases. The toothless quality of the housing code ordinance was part of the reason the city developed the Rental Unit Certificate of Occupancy, or RUCO program, whose enforcement provisions went into effect on Jan. 1, 2009.

The ordinance makes it unlawful for landlords to rent units without a certificate, and to obtain the certificate the unit must pass inspection and be found to have no code violations. Denying landlords revenue from paying tenants is the city’s most powerful inducement to get their properties up to code.

Burckley received a letter from the city on June 25 notifying him that he was being fined for renting 102-B S. Mendenhall St. without a RUCO certificate. Fines for the violation include a $250 penalty for the first violation, and $25 for every day that the violation is not corrected. Burckley has appealed the fines, and has a hearing scheduled before the RUCO Advisory Board on Thursday.

The RUCO Advisory Board is scheduled to hear a recommendation from a task force comprised of representatives of the real estate industry, neighborhoods and tenants at the same meeting. Leaders of the Greensboro Landlords Association and Triad Real Estate and Building Industries Coalition have made it clear that they would like nothing better than to have RUCO wiped off the books. Greensboro Assistant Fire Marshal David Lindsay told the task force that he supports the ordinance because it provides for proactive inspection of single-family residential properties — a category off limits to fire inspectors — which account for 86 percent of civilian fire deaths. Michael Roberto, a member of the Greensboro Human Relations Commission, said his board will be monitoring the task force’s progress because it is concerned with the relationship between public health and substandard properties.

Task force member Jeff Sims said during one of the meetings that there was an interest among some city council members to “go to a complaint-based system, and even, in some quiet corners, to do away with it altogether.” Donna Newton, advisor to the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress, and Beth McKee- Huger, executive director of the Greensboro Housing Coalition, said in response that they would not support any recommendation to do away with proactive inspections.

At the conclusion of the task force’s July 30 meeting, chair Lisa Dellinger had to acknowledge that members were unable to reach a consensus. The task force will bring four separate alternatives to the RUCO Advisory Board. One alternative is to make no changes at all, which is favored by

Newton and McKee-Huger. Another is to eliminate the ordinance altogether, which is the ultimate goal of TREBIC and the landlords association. Two so-called compromises floated by industry advocates are to eliminate proactive inspections and the requirement for rental units to hold a certificate while targeting identified substandard properties and to remove a 2 percent random sampling provision for annual re-inspections while redirecting resources towards problem properties.

Subtle hints among industry representatives that council members would like the task force to craft a recommendation to weaken the housing rental inspection program has created suspicion among some that Burckley is calling in favors to candidates whom he helped get elected as a way of wiggling out of his fines.

“His property didn’t have a RUCO,” said Engineering & Inspections Director Butch Simmons as he left the task force meeting. “That’s the point of the program, isn’t it?” Numerous calls to Burckley’s home and business numbers for this story were not returned.

Speaking only for herself, Betty Cone said she has not lobbied any council members on RUCO, adding that she supports the program.

“I personally thought the program was a wise one to have in place,” she said. “I have seen examples of housing violations that needed attention.”

Five council members reached for this story said that Burckley has not contacted them or lobbied in any way for changes to the RUCO program, and Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Vaughan pointed out that she brought up the idea of evaluating RUCO weeks before Burckley was notified of his fine.

Campaign finance reports filed with the Guilford County Board of Elections indicate that Burckley’s company, Compulis, received a total of $23,948 from victorious city council candidates in 2009.

After the election, Burckley boasted that he been involved in the campaigns of eight out of nine of the victorious candidates. He told YES! Weekly that he was paid by an undisclosed political action committee to provide services to the campaigns of candidates Danny Thompson and Jim Kee. Any such payments should be listed in the political action committee’s reports as in-kind contributions to the candidates’ campaign committees, said Kim Westbrook Strach, deputy director of campaign reporting at the NC Board of Elections. No political action committees listed on the Guilford County Board of Elections website reflect any in-kind contributions to city council candidates or the purchase of services from Burckley or his consulting company, Compulis, in 2009.

Thompson told YES! Weekly that Burckley’s involvement in his campaign was news to him.

“I’m not aware of any political committee that engaged, contracted or paid for a consultant to work on my campaign,” he said. “A lot of people worked on my campaign as volunteers. I’m happy for their support.”

If Burckley was indeed compensated for work on the Thompson and Kee campaigns, it should have been documented, Strach said.

“Any expenditures of a political committee have to be reported,” she said. “If there is evidence that there have been expenditures that have not been reported, we would look into that.”

Some council members have emerged as strong supporters of the RUCO program. If others are still entertaining the notion of scaling it back, their voices are quiet. At-large Councilman Robbie Perkins counts himself as a supporter.

“I’m not there to tear up this program,” Perkins said. “I was one of those who put it in place in 2003. I’ve watched it be successful both in terms of improvement of the city’s housing stock and cost savings, which have been pretty impressive.

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