Rental inspection changes approved by citizen board

by Jordan Green

The Greensboro RUCO Appeals and Advisory Board approved changes to the city’s housing inspection ordinance that were hashed out over the past five months by a task force representing both landlord and tenant interests, with only minor revisions, on Nov. 6.

The city’s current rental unit certificate of occupancy ordinance requires previously inspected housing rentals to be recertified every five years. The changes approved by the RUCO board do away with the five-year inspection schedule, replacing it with a more targeted program that will have to be renegotiated a year from now.

The approved changes require the city’s building inspection division to conduct exterior inspections of an unspecified number of properties that were certified when the program began in 2004. Deficiencies observed on the outside of rental houses and apartments would then trigger a full interior inspection. The revised ordinance also requires annual interior inspections of all rental units whose certificates have been revoked in the past year, all those that have come before the city’s Minimum Housing Commission and those that have had confirmed violations in the past year.

Most significant for tenant advocates who worried that some rental housing might fly under the radar or slip into disrepair, the revision requires full inspection of 2 percent of previously certified rental housing that are not included in the other categories in 2009. Assuming the program is extended a year from now, the so-called sentinel inspections would cover 10 percent of all currently certified properties.

“I think it’s a real good plan,” said Beth McKee-Huger, executive director of the Greensboro Housing Coalition. “I think we’ve got a very good balance of responsibilities and checks and balances in the system to make sure that everybody’s doing their part.”

Representatives of the housing coalition and the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress on one side, and the Triad Real Estate & Business Industries Coalition, or TREBIC, on the other, had agreed on a plan to have city staff conduct exterior inspections on 20 percent of certified properties — allowing for five years to re-inspect the entire stock — during an Oct. 30 task force meeting. That language was stripped from the ordinance approved by the RUCO Board a week later, replaced with wording stating that the building inspection division “will periodically conduct systematic exterior re-inspections” of previously certified housing.

Donna Newton, advisor to the neighborhood congress and one of the negotiators, acknowledged that the ordinance leaves the city a loophole to re-inspect something less than all of the housing certified in the first year of the program when it started in 2004.

“I know that the inspections department’s intention is to do a hundred-percent exterior inspections,” Newton said. “I also realize that they have limited resources. I do see the problems for the inspections program. You know in this difficult budget time that they’re not going to get any more staff.”

She added that Engineering & Inspections Director Butch Simmons has assured tenant advocates that re-inspection of all certified housing is his department’s goal. With a hiring freeze in place, and 49 positions cut from city staff last spring, Simmons’ department is hardly in a position to request funding for additional inspectors.

During about a dozen formal meetings industry representatives and tenant advocates alike have largely avoided discussion of the tens of thousands of rental properties that have yet to receive their initial inspections. Many landlords and tenants remain unaware of the fact that the ordinance — both current and revised versions — makes it unlawful for any owner to rent property after Jan. 1, 2009 without first securing a city-issued certificate of occupancy. City officials have trumpeted the fact that staff is nearing complete inspection of some 32,392 properties to meet a deadline set at the end of the calendar year. But that list includes only properties identified in 2003 from city planning records, and does not cover those that have come online since then or those that have been added through annexation.

The total number of houses and apartments on the rental market in Greensboro remains unknown, but is likely roughly double the number currently on the rolls. An investigation by YES! Weekly in September found that only 11 out of 25 rental properties in a blind sample had been inspected and certified as meeting the minimum standards of the city’s housing code.

Newton said she plans to monitor housing inspection data with her counterparts from TREBIC and the housing coalition to get a handle on whether the program is achieving its goals.

“They have to get to that,” she said of the rental properties that remain unidentified. “I know their intention is to do them. And the onus is on us with the data to make sure they do.”

The ordinance includes a $250 fine for renting housing without a rental unit certificate of occupation, which city officials and tenant advocates hope will act as an inducement for scofflaw landlords to come into compliance.

“We know there’s going to be some units out there that we have not got to,” Simmons said. “We’d like to work with them and help them get their RUCO certificate.”

The revised ordinance is likely to go before the Greensboro City Council for final approval next month, Simmons said. Even though the revised ordinance dramatically scales back the inspection program, the compromise represents a marked difference from proposals previously contemplated by staff and the various stakeholders.

In early July, Simmons outlined “a list of proposed changes to the current RUCO program that would take effect in 2009” to Peter Placentino, who was appointed as the city council District 3 representative to the RUCO board, and who is also the vice president for property management for Brown Investment Properties.

“If no complaints resulting in a loss of a RUCO certificate [occur] within the 5 year period,” Simmons wrote, “the existing certificates would remain valid.”

Early meetings gave the appearance that changes to the ordinance would proceed along the lines discussed by Simmons and Placentino. In late August industry representatives and tenant advocates agreed to allow owners to recertify their properties by completing a survey. Property owners and landlords, led by TREBIC President Marlene Sanford, had openly called for revocation of the inspection ordinance altogether.

Later, the housing coalition and neighborhood congress, with prodding from the city’s human relations commission, stiffened their resolve and renegotiated a more thorough inspections program.

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