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Discussion continues on potential rental ordinance

September 04, 2013 - Oxford Village officials continued to discuss, but took no action regarding a proposed ordinance that would require the registration and inspection of residential rental units.

"You have to make a fundamental decision – do you want to start a program like this or do you not want to start a program like this?" said village attorney Bob Davis. "There are many benefits to your community (by) having these rental units at least be inspected periodically for safety."

Council set aside the proposed ordinance until the 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 10 meeting at 22 W. Burdick St.

Davis presented council with a revised version of the language he had originally drafted. Back in July, council requested he give them a "softer" version.

"It's a difficult thing to soften, but I did (it) with respect to some key points," he said.

The biggest change was the elimination of a requirement that the initial registration of a rental unit automatically triggered an inspection.

"The key here is when this program is introduced, you're not calling upon all these (owners of) rental units to come in and register, and by the way, as soon as you get here, we're going right back to your place for an inspection," Davis said.

Davis wants to treat registrations and inspections separately, so the village can at least get an accurate list of all the residential rental units.

"You have a certain amount of rental properties in your community (that) you may or may not know are providing lease space to individuals," he told council. "Your building official agrees that just having the registration list is very valuable."

Under the proposed ordinance, there would be no initial fee to register, but there would be an annual registration fee of $15 per dwelling unit to cover administrative costs.

"The goal here is to get all of those properties registered and then later, upon certain events, have them inspected so (landlords) can keep these places up to code and up to safety standards for tenants," Davis explained. "You're getting a list together and then you're working with that list over a period of years and transactions to trigger inspections at the right times."

Instead of having the initial registration of a residential rental unit automatically require an inspection, the proposed ordinance states that "the enforcing officer may inspect residential rental units once every three years without first receiving a complaint or without other cause."

However, there is also a list of "circumstances" that could trigger an inspection. They include the owner requesting an inspection; a complaint from the owner or occupant; the enforcing officer having probable cause to believe the premises is in violation; a rental unit not being registered; a rental unit is unoccupied and unsecured or damaged by a fire; or "if a life safety issue or an emergency is observed or is reasonably believed to exist."

A property being sold or transferred to a new owner could also trigger an inspection.

"The goal here is just to keep rental properties safe by way of an inspection process," Davis said.

He told council that in other municipalities, "almost 90 percent of the triggering events (for inspections) come from the tenants" who report problems.

If an inspection is initiated by a complaint and a violation is found, a $35 fee would be charged to the owner under the proposed ordinance. If no violation is found, there's no fee.

Normal inspection and re-inspection fees range from $60 to $200 under the proposed ordinance.

According to the proposed ordinance, if these inspection fees are not paid within 30 days of billing, then the village has the option to require the tenant to vacate the premises.

Councilman Elgin Nichols didn't like the idea of the enforcing officer still being able to inspect a rental unit once every three years without some sort of justification.

"If I'm running a clean operation, I keep everything up to par, I don't want anybody to beat my door down every once in a while," he said.

Nichols viewed the ordinance as a burden to "good property owners" who take care of their rentals.

"I guess I would look at it as a property owner as just another way for government to soak some money out of you," Nichols said.

Davis suggested the proposed ordinance could state that no inspection fees will be assessed if no issues or violations are found in a rental unit.

"I think that would be fine," Nichols said. "I wouldn't have a problem with that."

The councilman noted he's "all for chasing the guilty and leaving the innocent alone."

Davis indicated he also had no problem removing the once-every-three-years inspection requirement and just having inspections triggered by various issues and events.

Councilwoman Maureen Helmuth was critical of the $15 annual registration fee.

"I think $15 isn't a lot of money, but it might be a little high for what that's, in theory, supposed to be for," she said.

Helmuth suggested that some of that fee could be applied to help offset the cost of future inspections.

Oxford Fire Chief Pete Scholz was supportive of the village regulating residential rental units.

"I'm sorry to say that the majority of the apartments in this village" do not have landlords who take good care of their properties, he told council.

Scholz said "it gets rather scary" when the fire department responds to a medical call at a second-floor apartment and the stairs are not safe. He indicated there's been "a couple times" when emergency personnel waited downstairs and had the patient come to them, "no matter how sick" he or she was, because "I'm not sending my people up those stairs."

"I would be leery of even sending my people up those stairs if it was a fire situation. That's how bad they are," said Scholz, noting he's seen staircases "swaying back and forth."

"Hardly any" of the apartments have smoke detectors, he added.

In Scholz's estimation, the village probably isn't aware of most of the town's residential rental units because they're single family houses that have been illegally converted into two or three apartments. He noted that most of the work to create these apartments "has never been inspected by anybody."

During a recent call, Scholz said firefighters visited a room being rented by an elderly couple, who had their refrigerator, microwave and other electrical devices running off a single extension cord.

"That's the kind of conditions that are in most of these apartments throughout the entire village," he said.

Scholz told council that health and safety is something it needs to be "very proactive" about and he'd "hate to see" the proposed ordinance "get watered down."

"It's extremely important that we do something instead of turning our heads as (has) been (done) for so many years," he said.

Nichols noted that people who have illegally created rental units aren't going to register them with the village because of an ordinance just as criminals won't register their guns no matter how many laws require it.

"Really, I have no problem going after those people," he said. "The (landlords) that are doing a great job, I just don't want them being coerced."

Oxford resident Tom Claycomb voiced his opposition to the proposed ordinance based on his experiences owning rental property in Pontiac for more than 20 years.

"I know this isn't Pontiac, but it could be someday," he said. "I think it's a bad idea."

Claycomb explained how the inspection fee for his Pontiac rental property was $100 in 2005 and by 2012, it increased to $400.

"The fees go up; they never go down," he said.

He said these type of ordinances start out as being about protecting health and safety, but they eventually evolve into inspectors telling landlords to repaint rooms.

"You can't believe the silly things, the stupid things (that) these inspectors come up with," he said.

Claycomb described Pontiac's inspectors as "overzealous" officials who "nitpick" at everything and are "looking for something to write up because they think they have to justify their existence."

He suggested council table this issue for "a few years" until it receives some "solid information" that such an ordinance is really needed in Oxford.

"It's a can of worms and it's a money grab – that's all it is," Claycomb said. "If anybody thinks that passing laws and ordinances is going to make a perfect world, we would be living in one now (if that were true)."

"Bad landlords, you always have them, you always will," he added. "You're not going to get rid of them. Why hassle the rest of the people?"

Helmuth explained the purpose of this proposed ordinance isn't to dictate paint colors, it's to ensure smoke detectors are installed, leaking roofs are repaired and stairs aren't rotted.

"We don't want to know when somebody doesn't like the paint color or their carpet's dirty," she said. "We want to know when you turn on a light switch and you can hear it (making a buzzing sound). Or if the roof's leaking.

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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