Talk of truncating RUCO amidst confusion and miscommunication

by Jordan Green

Negotiations over a revision to Greensboro’s ordinance requiring mandatory inspection of rental properties remain mired in miscommunication and confusion, with two panels, staff members, elected leaders and representatives of the real-estate sector and tenant advocates speaking past each other.

The Rental Unit Certificate of Occupancy, or RUCO Advisory Board took no action at its Oct. 2 meeting, following a pair of task force meetings in which a move to allow landlords to attest to the good standing of their properties and to put off changes to the program until new properties could be inspected were alternately considered.

Jay Ovittore, chairman of the city’s Housing Committee under the auspices of the Human Relations Commission, said the RUCO Advisory Board took no action on a set of recommendations by the task force at the Oct. 2 meeting, and instead Engineering & Inspections Director Butch Simmons presented his own plan. Simmons is on record proposing automatic recertification for rental properties that have already been inspected, a step towards the real-estate industry’s goal of sun-setting the ordinance altogether.

Representatives of the tenant advocacy organization, who had previously taken a conciliatory stance towards the real-estate lobby, have signaled a new willingness to fight a radical revision of the ordinance.

“I told Butch after [the meeting]: ‘I’m not pushing for people who keep their property clean and don’t have violations to be inspected,” said Willena Cannon, who represents the Greensboro Housing Coalition on the RUCO Board. “I’m willing to wait six, seven, eight years to get all the properties inspected. He was advocating for some properties that had little or no violations to be automatically recertified, and the reason he gave was so we could focus on the bad properties.”

Simmons handed out a draft revision with a major overhaul of the ordinance on Oct. 2. On Monday, he characterized it as “a first shot,” and staff was working on a new draft “with final language to look at to make sure” the various stakeholders are comfortable.

The draft circulated by Simmons last week strikes language stating that rental unit certificates of occupancy will “be valid for a period of five years from the date of issuance,” indicating that instead the certificates will “remain in force unless violations are discovered or reported and confirmed.”

Simmons said he was “not sure” why the board didn’t take action on an earlier recommendation made by the task force last month, but later said the “task force was developed to get input from everybody, so every has the chance to get the same amount of input.”

The creation of the ad hoc task force by Simmons’ staff to consider revisions to the ordinance has been a curious development, as the ordinance mandates that one function of the formal RUCO Board is “make recommendations to city council on any changes to the rental unit certification ordinance.”

An e-mail exchanged almost three months ago between Simmons and Peter Placentino, a vice president at Brown Investment Properties and a district representative on the RUCO Board, has created suspicion that city staff and industry representatives have preordained the dismantlement of the inspections department’s system of mandatory inspections. That notion is wrong, Simmons said.

Simmons wrote in an e-mail to Placentino on July 10: “If no complaints resulting in loss of a RUCO certificate [occur] within the 5 year period the existing certificates would remain valid.”

Greensboro City Councilman Mike Barber, who represents District 4, said input from various stakeholders that wasn’t captured in the draft circulated by Simmons would be incorporated and brought to the task force on Oct. 23, then further reviewed by the board on Oct. 30. If approved by the board, a proposal could conceivably come before city council as early as Nov. 3. Barber said he would like council to take action on revising the ordinance by the end of the year.

Both city officials and tenants advocates at the Greensboro Housing Coalition have lauded the RUCO program as an effective tool for forcing landlords to bring substandard housing up to code. Coalition Executive Director Beth McKee-Huger told YES! Weekly that code violations in Greensboro were down to 768 in May compared with a high of about 1,400 in 2005.

City officials have indicated that staff is well on its way to completing a comprehensive inspection of the city’s rental housing stock. The RUCO ordinance mandates that all rental properties must have a rental unit certificate of occupancy by Jan. 1, 2009 “before the unit may be offered for rent.”

Code Enforcement Manager Dan Reynolds has said that as of the end of July, the city had inspected 31,351 out of 32,392 properties. When a YES! Weekly investigation disclosed that only 11 out of 25 properties in a sample had been inspected, Reynolds acknowledged that the list of properties has not been updated since 2003, and doesn’t include new buildings, houses formerly occupied by owners that have been added to the rental stock or housing in territory that has been annexed since that time.

Landlords have also expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of the program.

“Talking with a number of property owners it is clear that no systematic, comprehensive, inspections have ever been conducted,” states a treatise on the website of the Greensboro Landlords Association. “Most owners of reasonably well maintained properties report that their properties have never been inspected, or have only been inspected if there was a complaint from a tenant that triggered the inspection. That would lead one to conclude that either city officials are being disingenuous when they claim that there was a systematic program that inspected all properties, or that they are uninformed of how the inspections program they administered actually worked.”

The treatise also echoes a fear expressed by a number of tenants who have told YES! Weekly that they feared that their rents would go up if they complained about code violations and forced landlords to make repairs. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they did not want to undermine their relationships with their landlords.

“If money must be spent to improve the quality of housing, that money must come from somewhere,” the treatise reads. “Property owners have only one source of income for maintenance and improvement, the rent they receive. So, in the face of increased taxes and fees levied by government the property owner has no choice but to increase rents to realize the money needed to be in compliance with city ordinances.”

Historically high vacancy rates have kept rental prices suppressed in the Greensboro market of late, according to the landlords association. “However, as these high vacancy rates work themselves out of the system the pent up pressure for major rent increases will be released throughout the city,” the treatise states. “When that happens, and tenants complain, be sure to make it clear that they have the city of Greensboro to thank for their rent going up.”

Ovittore said Simmons has asked to address the Human Relations Commission when it meets on Wednesday. He added that he expects the commission to pass a resolution in support of mandatory inspections.

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