Supporters of a proposed rental licensing and inspection program say the City Hall effort may produce the largest improvement in living conditions in the city in at least a generation.
Opponents say it's an overreach of government authority destined to increase the price of rental housing.
No matter how you label it, a citywide rental inspection program has been years in the making. And now it appears a decision is near. Commissioners at their 6:35 p.m. meeting Tuesday will consider approving the program, which would cover virtually all of the city's nearly 20,000 rental units.
Three commissioners — Jeremy Farmer, Terry Riordan and Bob Schumm — have indicated support for the program. Mayor Mike Dever and Commissioner Mike Amyx have previously expressed concern, although Tuesday will be the first time the commission has looked at the latest version.
So, what's included in this latest proposal? And how would it work? Here's a look at some of the more common questions:
Q: Don't we already have a rental licensing and inspection program?
A: Yes, but not one nearly this large. The current program only inspects rentals in neighborhoods zoned for single-family homes. That leaves a lot of units uninspected, including those in large apartment complexes and the many homes that have been converted to rentals in the Oread neighborhood.
Q: Doesn't the city already have the authority to inspect those units?
A: It does, but the city's policy generally has been to inspect only if a complaint is filed.
Q: What will the city be inspecting for?
A: Violations of the city's property maintenance code that could create life, health or safety problems for tenants.
Q: That seems kind of vague. Does the city offer more specifics?
A: Yes. The ordinance lists 27 areas of the code where inspectors can issue a violation. They include items such as unsound roofs, inoperable windows, cracked foundations, improper handrails, electrical issues, plumbing issues and smoke alarm issues.
Q: What does it mean that the city is going to start issuing rental licenses?
A: Landlords every year will have to register all their rental properties with an official at the city's Planning and Development Services Department. There will be a form to fill out and an annual fee to pay, and then the landlord gets his license for each unit.
Q: How much is the fee?
A: It depends on how many rental units a landlord owns. If he owns 1 to 50 units, it's $17 per unit. If he owns 51 to 100 units, it's $850 or $16 per unit, whichever amount is greater. If he owns 101 to 150 units, it's a minimum of $1,600 or $15 per dwelling unit. If he owns 151 or more, it's a minimum of $2,250 or $14 per dwelling unit.
Q: Are there any other fees?
A: Yes. There is a $50 fee for every unit that's inspected as part of the program.
Q: How often are units going to be inspected?
A: This is where it gets a little tricky. The normal inspection schedule will be every three years. But landlords will not have all of their units inspected every three years. Instead, the city is going to use a sampling method. The city will inspect 10 percent of a landlord's units, up to a maximum of 15. If the inspection finds no more than five violations per unit, then the landlord won't have any of his/her units inspected again for six years. If any of the units have more than five violations, the city will be back in three years to inspect another batch of the landlord's units.
Q: I'm still confused about the rental inspection fee. Does the landlord pay for each unit he has?
A: No. If he owns 100 rental units, he would have 10 of them inspected through the city's sampling method. So, he'd pay $50 per unit, or $500 total.
Q: What happens if an inspector finds violations?
A: The landlord will need to fix the violations, usually within 30 days. The city plans to do a re-inspection of properties that have violations.
Q: What happens if the landlord doesn't fix the violations?
A: Assuming that the landlord hasn't successfully appealed the violation to the city's Board of Zoning Appeals, the landlord could be placed on probation. That involves the city creating a specific plan and timeline for the units to be fixed. If that plan isn't followed, the city can revoke the rental license for that unit.
Q: What happens if a unit's rental license is revoked?
A: It becomes illegal for the landlord to rent the unit. Landlords who rent units without a license are subject to a city fine of $500 to $2,500.
Q: Do tenants have any right to refuse to let city inspectors into their apartments?
A: Sort of. The city will ask a tenant to sign a consent form for inspectors to enter the apartment. Tenants can refuse to sign the consent form. At that point, the city will have a decision to make. It can choose to inspect another unit owned by the landlord, or it can go to Municipal Court and seek an administrative warrant to enter the apartment without the tenant's permission.
Q: How much notice will tenants be given before an inspection?
A: The ordinance calls for the city to notify the landlord at least 72 hours before an inspection. The city then hopes the landlord will make efforts to notify the tenants. But the city points out that landlords are under no legal obligation to help the city obtain consent from tenants. That's the city's obligation, but city officials hope landlords will be helpful.
Q: What happens if city inspectors see something illegal in an apartment, such as marijuana sitting on a coffee table?
A: It sounds like you may want to tidy up your coffee table. In all seriousness, if city officials see something they believe is clearly illegal, they can report it to the Police Department. City officials stress that is not the purpose of the program, and they also note that city inspectors have no right to go through private spaces, such as dresser drawers, medicine cabinets and such.
Q: Will inspectors be taking a bunch of photos or video inside apartments?
A: That is not the plan. The city's inspection guidelines call for no photos or videos to be taken during an initial inspection, except in cases of emergency. A city attorney said that basically means if the property is so badly deteriorated that it is obvious it will have to be condemned, inspectors would take pictures in that case to start the condemnation process.
Q: What if an inspector finds that there are too many people living in an apartment?
A: Over-occupancy is one of the 27 violations inspectors will be looking for. City code makes it illegal for more than four unrelated people to live in a typical multi-family property. (Boarding houses can have more.) But the ordinance also states that if a landlord doesn't know of the over-occupancy, the violation shall not be counted against the landlord in determining whether his properties qualify for the six-year incentive. Many landlords told the city that tenants often sneak roommates into apartments without their knowledge.
Q: What if an inspector finds something that isn't a life and safety matter but is still a violation of city code, such as a junk car in the yard?
A: The inspector can write up a violation notice for the junk car, for example, but the violation can't be used in determining whether the rental unit receives a license. It also can't be used to determine whether the landlord qualifies for the six-year incentive. But the landlord could face a fine.
Q: Are there any rental units that won't have to be inspected?
A: If you are renting a unit solely to a member of your immediate family, you do not have to get a rental license. Hotels, bed and breakfast establishments, nursing homes, campgrounds, and greek housing also don't have to get licenses. Apartments in the Section 8 affordable housing program must register with the city, but do not have to get inspected. They go through a separate inspection process as part of the federal program.
Q: If approved, when would all this start?
A: Registrations would begin in July, but inspections wouldn't begin until 2015.
Q: Is this program going to cause my taxes to go up?
A: City officials are not projecting a tax increase to pay for the program. It is estimated the program will cost about $500,000 to operate, with a bulk of those costs going towards an increased inspection staff. As currently projected, the annual registration fees and inspection fees are scheduled to provide the needed funding. The city's current rental inspection program for single family rental units, however, does not generate enough fees to pay for itself. City officials believe the fees for the new program will be set high enough to cover annual operating costs.