October 30, 2013 - A proposed ordinance to require the registration and regulate the inspections of residential rental units within Oxford Village was rejected in a 4-0 vote by council last week.
The vote followed a public hearing on the subject during which council got an earful from property owners and citizens vehemently opposed to such an ordinance.
"I think this is ridiculous because this is government sticking its nose in where it doesn't belong," said Chuck Schneider, who owns and rents out multiple local properties.
Some members of the public accused the village of creating the proposed ordinance as a money-maker for the municipality.
"This is not a radar speed trap to make money," said village President Pro-tem Dave Bailey.
Village attorney Bob Davis explained the intent of the ordinance was to get a free, compulsory registration process in place, so village officials, police officers and fire personnel would know the locations of all residential rental units in order to better protect the health, safety and welfare of tenants.
Inspections would have been triggered by complaints or "an evident problem" with the property. Davis indicated the point of the inspection was "to locate inappropriate materials and/or construction and get it corrected."
"The overall goal is to not have people forced to live in rental units that are dangerous," the attorney said.
Despite Davis' explanation, some doubted the village's motives.
"I read (about) this in the Oxford Leader and I felt this to be very intrusive," said village resident Sharon Tait. "And I wondered what is the hidden agenda here because . . . we know who the property owners are, we know who pays the water bill. It doesn't really feel like it's an issue of public safety; it feels like there is another agenda here. I don't know if that's accurate or not.
"I feel like this is not really necessary and I'm wondering, too, how many problems it's going to create? And is it a good use of energy and money for the community? Is there not a better place for us for us to be putting our energies?"
Some of those opposed to the proposed ordinance saw it as discrimination, trying to differentiate between homeowners who rent their property to tenants and people who simply live in their own home. They saw it as unfair to regulate the former, but not the latter.
"Why is there discrimination between a rental property and a private residence?" Schneider said. "You're saying no private residences are problematic and they don't need to be inspected, but the other guy does? That's baloney."
To Schneider, there's no difference between the two.
"A homeowner is a homeowner," he said. "For you to say we're going to have a separate set of rules for the homeowner who elects to rent his property is baloney. It's discriminatory."
Davis pointed out there's a bill currently pending in the Michigan State Senate that's going to create "separate rules" for rental properties and inspections at the state level. He noted this bill wouldn't apply to Oxford because of its small population.
Melvin (Buck) Cryderman, a township resident who owns and rents out a duplex in the village, was of the same opinion as Schneider.
He said many houses in the village, not just rentals, have the same types of issues this proposed ordinance was attempting to address.
"Why wouldn't that (ordinance) apply to just the general homeowner?" Cryderman asked.
Steve Schienke, who owns rental property in the village, also didn't understand how the municipality could hold rental property owners to a different standard than other homeowners.
"You're picking these people out . . . that are no different than their neighbors with these older homes," he said. "People live in these homes. That was code back then."
Cryderman also didn't understand why the proposed registration process required property owners to provide "so much information" to the village such as the size of the rental rooms.
"(It's) too much big government, I think, and wanting too much information," he said. "If you want me to register my (property), I don't have a problem with that. I do have a problem with an inspection fee and other things."
Schienke told council if it approved the proposed ordinance, it would effectively shut down every older home in Oxford that's being used as a rental because "none" of them comply with current codes and it's too expensive to make the necessary improvements.
"Not one of them will pass (inspection) and you know this," he said. "If you pass this, everybody who has a rental in Oxford in any of these old (homes), they're done. Unless they're newer and current, it's over."
Those opposed to the proposed ordinance were also concerned it would give inspectors an incentive to find violations, even when there are none.
"If you have a job to do, you have to do something and part of that would be to find something wrong," Cryderman said. He feared writing up violations could become a way for inspectors to ensure "job security."
Councilman Elgin Nichols, who also opposed the proposed ordinance, agreed with that point.
"I've checked with other communities and that's exactly what has happened," he said.
Nichols said the rental inspection programs start out "good," but then they "spiral into a situation where it's Big Brother controlling" everything.
To Nichols, the ordinance was unnecessary because any safety/health issues can addressed through state regulations that are already in place. And if a renter is having a problem with a landlord, there are organizations and associations already in place to help them, he said.
"I don't believe we need any more government," Nichols said. "I believe we have enough government in place. There are regulations and laws in place that are sufficient to handle this."
Schneider expressed his concern about the inspections being an invasion of privacy.
"A home is someone's castle. You cannot enter that home," he said. "If that person does not give you permission to enter that home, you are going nowhere. The only way you're getting in that home is two ways – a warrant signed by a sitting judge or probable cause.
"Probable cause is not "Gee, I think the wiring's bad in there. Probable cause is, 'Help! I'm being strangled.' The place is on fire. That's probable cause."
Schneider noted that even the police can't just enter a home without the permission of the resident.
Davis noted the ordinance language had a provision requiring court-issued warrants for non-emergency situations where the owner or tenant "demands" one before allowing an inspection. However, if there's an emergency, the ordinance stated the enforcing officer "shall have the right to enter at any time."
Dan Durham, who's employed as the village's code enforcement officer, also opposed the proposed ordinance. He did so not because he doesn't believe one is needed, but because the one presented wasn't strong enough in his opinion.
Durham indicated he liked the earlier, more stringent version of the ordinance "a lot better."
He said the proposed ordinance in its current form was "essentially useless" and "won't accomplish anything."
"There's no tools here," Durham said. "It's verbage only."
"This document, as written, would be a mistake," he said. "If there isn't the desire to move forward at this time, I would offer that you should just shred this and forget it."
Because it had no teeth, in his view, Durham's fear was if there's an incident and someone decides to sue the village and their attorney sees there's a rental registration/inspection ordinance, the municipality would be "wide open to problems."
"I'm concerned that if you pass this as written, it will only serve to bring liability onto the village when you have an incident that kills people, which you'll have, make no mistake about it," he said.
As for the concern that inspectors will purposely find violations in order to justify their existence, Durham said that wouldn't be the case with him.
"My enforcement end of it would not be any different than it is today," he said. "If I find a violation, I'm obligated to pursue it."
"It's not like a loose cannon rolls (through) the door and starts looking for trouble," Durham told council. "Anything that I write up has to be defensible in court in case it gets to that point.
"So, if I go through and look for a bunch of stuff that does not exist, I'm going to get beaten black and blue when we go to court. I never have and I don't ever want to start. So, it's not a matter of looking for trouble. You have to be able to defend it."
For Durham, the whole issue boils down to protecting the "life safety" of tenants.
"You have life safety issues in this village today, right now. I've been in some of them," he said. "I've been in a three-story building where I could look down and see all the way to the basement and every unit in between was occupied with children.
"I didn't have the tools to do anything about it other than to get this guy into court. I thought we had him, then the attorney settled for costs and a fine, which accomplished nothing."
Following the public's comments, council members chimed in with their views.
Councilwoman Sue Bossardet explained that "there is no hidden agenda" with the proposed ordinance.
"We by no means think that we're going to make money on it," she said. "It is going to be income-neutral. We're not looking to put people out of business."
Bossardet noted that her vote against the proposed ordinance was not based on the public's comments.
"I believe that we have an obligation to think of public safety, but the form that this ordinance is in (right now), I'm not necessarily in favor of it tonight," she said. "It has really nothing to do with what some of you have said or accused me of being or doing. I just think that we need to talk about it some more."
Councilman Bryan Cloutier was of the opinion that the village should wait and see what the state plans to do with regard to its pending legislation concerning rental properties before enacting a local ordinance.
"If we're going to do anything in this community, it should be in line with whatever the state legislation is," he said. "Perhaps, we're sort of putting the cart before the horse here and we need to find out how that's going to weigh."
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.