October 02, 2013 - Over the last few months, the Oxford Village Council has had plenty to say about a proposed ordinance to regulate the registration and inspection of residential rental units.
Now, it's the people's turn to talk.
A public hearing on the subject is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 22 inside the village council chambers located at 22 W. Burdick St.
In response to concerns that earlier versions of the proposed ordinance were too intrusive and burdensome, village attorney Bob Davis presented council with a stripped-down version at the Sept. 24 meeting.
"The version that you now have . . . probably is about as far as one might go. The next step would be to simply not have an ordinance," he said. "This is bare bones. I don't see that it's overly intrusive. I think it provides your law enforcement folks with the type of knowledge that they would want."
Under this latest proposal, all residential rental units would have to be registered with the village.
The purpose of this registration is to give inspectors and public safety personnel "a list of where the rental units are in the village," Davis explained.
This way if an emergency situation arises, police officers and firefighters will know if a house or building has rental units, how many there are and the number of potential occupants.
"If I were a firefighter, I would want to know what that maximum head count could possibly be," said village President Pro-Tem Dave Bailey.
It's proposed that there would be no fee for this registration. Previous drafts called for an annual fee of $15 per unit.
When registering, a landlord would be required to provide the following information to the village – 1) street address; 2) the number and types of rental units; 3) name and contact information of all property owners, responsible local agents and people authorized to order repairs or services for the property; 4) maximum number of occupants proposed for each rental unit; 5) information about the size of all habitable rooms used as part or all of each rental unit.
All of the registration information must be "accurate and complete."
"How do we know that people are going register?" asked Councilwoman Sue Bossardet.
"You don't," Davis replied.
Basically, the proposed ordinance would rely on the honor system like many existing ordinances.
"If you're a good landlord and your facility is up to speed, why wouldn't you register?" Davis said.
The attorney noted the ordinance has penalties for both noncompliance and giving false information.
Violators would be subject to civil fines ranging from $100 to $500 plus costs
"We're relying on them coming forward and registering their units," Davis said. "And if there's nothing wrong with their units, there shouldn't be an issue."
As for inspections, Davis said they would only occur under "limited circumstances" such as a complaint is received from a landlord or tenant or there's a report or referral from village inspectors, police officers or fire personnel.
Inspections could also be triggered if a landlord requests one; if the exterior of the house or building gives the enforcing officer probable cause to believe there's a violation; if the enforcing officer has information that a rental unit is not registered; if a dwelling is unoccupied and unsecured or damaged by fire; or "if a life safety issue or an emergency is observed or is reasonably believed to exist."
"Under this ordinance scheme, we don't inspect until we know about a problem," Davis said.
In the original draft, simply registering a rental unit with the village or transferring ownership of the property would have triggered a required inspection.
Fees would be assessed for these inspections under the proposed ordinance.
If an inspection is caused by a complaint and no violation is found, there would be no fee. If a violation is found, there would be a $35 charge.
If a violation is found, there would be no charge to inspect the property a second time. If there are still violations, there would be a $100 fee for a third inspection. If the violations continue, each inspection from the fourth one on would cost $200 each under the proposed ordinance.
Although the proposed ordinance is much less stringent than previous versions, Councilman Elgin Nichols was still opposed to the village enacting it.
"My position on this is don't do it," he said. "You're going to create a can of worms."
He argued that there are already state laws in place that govern much of what the proposed ordinance is attempting to accomplish in terms of protecting the health, safety and welfare of the public.
"There is a legal system in place," Nichols said. "If landlords have been causing problems, it can be addressed and is being addressed everyday."
Nichols noted he went on an "exploratory mission" to see what other communities have done in terms of regulating residential rental units.
"An interesting thing came out," he said. "They said it was a great program when it first began – and I'm talking about Bay City right now. They said it's way out of control now.
"The inspectors are not going to leave until they find something wrong . . . Litigation is going on all the time. I was told by a very staunch individual that actually helped start that program, that if he had to do it again, he would never do it."
Nichols said he doesn't want to see those same problems happen in the village.
"You seem . . . to have a group of pretty capable and honest enforcement officers," Davis said. "I would be hesitant to even suggest that it could (turn) into abuse, but I do understand your point."
Davis told council it really must decide what exactly it wants to do.
"This is where we're at," he said. "I can't in good conscience spend more time and more of your dollars diluting this any further. If this isn't acceptable, I really would suggest you're not in the mood for this type of an ordinance. This is as about as bare-bones as I can get it for you."
Fire Chief Pete Scholz spoke in support of the proposed ordinance because his main concern is the "life safety" of village residents.
He noted that "a good share" of the houses that have been converted and divided into rental units did not have quality construction work performed by licensed contractors nor do they comply with elements of the fire code such as having fire separation walls between units.
"In most of the places that we go into, there are no smoke detectors," Scholz said.
The chief said there's so much concern about infringing on people's property rights, but he wishes there would be just as much concern over the safety of rental units.
Councilwoman Maureen Helmuth was not supportive of Davis' latest version of the rental ordinance because it's not "strong enough" for her.
"I think we need something with some teeth in it, not to punish the landlords, not to make it so hard on the landlords that it's not worth opening the house, but to make it so that . . . the landlord's protected from lawsuits and the tenant's protected from death or bugs or pestilence or water damage," she said.
"I don't believe this is what we want. I think we want something stronger," Helmuth noted.
Village resident Chris Bishop told council he does not believe having this type of ordinance is a bad idea because knowing where the rental units are located could help make things more equitable amongst home and property owners when it comes to funding the water and sewer systems.
His point was it's not fair for a single family home that's been divided into multiple apartments to pay the same for these services as a single family home that's being occupied by one family.
"They're not sharing that cost and that's affecting all of us," he said.
Bishop likened the proposed registration requirement for residential rentals to the licenses that many businesses must obtain from government in order to operate.
He noted it's unfair to have an apartment complex, which must abide by a set of state codes, competing against rental units created in homes that are not required to do the same.
"That's not fair competition," Bishop said.
He doesn't want to see an ordinance that gives the village "long tentacles," but at the same time, Bishop said "there has to be something there, so that we at least know where (rentals are) at."
Nichols pointed out that honest people aren't the problem here; it's people who don't follow the rules and making more rules won't change that. It will only place more of a burden on honest people.
"There are laws and regulations in place in the State of Michigan now; I don't think (having) more laws is going to solve this issue," Nichols said. "It just gets to a point where the good guy ends up paying more by the time it's finished. And I don't think that should happen."
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.