Task force members butt heads on curtailing rental inspections

A task force set up to recommend changes to Greensboro’s model rental housing inspection ordinance faces uncertainty after its first meeting, with a representative of the city’s neighborhood associations making it clear she will oppose any compromise to the current proactive approach.

Donna Newton, advisor to the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress, said proponents of the city’s Rental Unit Certificate of Occupancy, or RUCO program had already compromised two years ago.

“We have already compromised when we went from full-on inspections to sampling,” she said. “A ‘trust-me’ system – ‘we’re going to do everything right, and everything’s going to be fine’ – is not believable.”

Advocates for proactive rental housing inspections received a surprised gift with the appearance at the meeting of Greensboro Assistant Fire Marshal David Lindsay, who had to obtain permission to speak from chair Lisa Dellinger, a representative of the Triad Real Estate and Building Industries Coalition, or TREBIC, who is employed as residential property manager for Koury Corp.

“You would probably consider me a RUCO advocate… I’m also probably an advocate for some type of proactive process,” Lindsay said. “Our inspection process [for commercial properties] is very proactive. We do inspect 100 percent of commercial properties. If we were to change our inspection process for commercial properties to a reactive, complaint-based program, it would be a huge disaster for a number of reasons. And I don’t think it would be successful on account of tenants and people that work for business owners who would not come forward. They would be fearful that they would lose their job, their livelihood or whatever the case may be.

“Seventy-eight percent of structure fires occur in single-family houses and duplexes,” Lindsay continued. “Those are the structures that we can’t inspect as trained fire inspectors. So we can’t influence that number. At the same time, 86 percent of the civilian fire deaths that occur, occur in single-family homes.”

The job of inspecting single-family rental units, along with apartment complexes, currently falls to the city’s inspection division headed by Dan Reynolds.

Reynolds handed out a summary of housing code violations recorded by his office in the first six months of this year. Violations described as “fire protection systems” ranked fifth, with 121 cited. By far, exterior structural deficiencies ranked the highest, with 989, followed by interior structural deficiencies, with 598, and electrical equipment violations, with 326.

“It’s no secret that my constituency would like to see this program go away,” said Marlene Sanford, president of the TREBIC, which hosted the meeting. “When you talk to them about why they hate the program or what problems they have with the program, it boils down to the proactive nature of it, going and spending public- and private-sector resources on the 93 percent, or whatever it is, of properties that pass on the first time that we really don’t need to be putting resources into.

“I think I can sell them on a compromise between keeping it as it is and getting rid of it altogether and going back to a complaint system,” she added, “if we turn it into an ordinance that targets the substandard units, and targets them hard and hits them frequently. And spend the resources that way. I think if we take the $740,000, or whatever it is, and stick it on the 3-5 percent of units that really need the attention, then I think everybody probably gets happier…. The proactive inspections are a problem for my industry.”

City inspectors acknowledge that although the program requires every rental unit in the city to obtain a rental unit certificate of occupancy, or RUCO, many rental properties remain uninspected, including homes that recently changed over from owner-occupied to rentals and properties annexed into the city in the past couple years. Problems have also been identified at some units that hold valid certificates. For example, JT Hairston Memorial Apartments received a certificate in 2007, but children in some units have been driven out because of a bedbug infestation in the past six months.

The notion that an effective program could ignore properties that haven’t already been inspected and instead exclusively target those already identified as substandard encountered skepticism.

“You really think you know where all the substandard properties are?” Newton asked.

One of the reasons given for the task force’s assignment to craft a recommendation for city council is to determine whether the program is cost-effective.

“In the current budget environment for us to spend time and money looking at properties that meet the basic requirements, we may want to retool that,” said Jeff Sims, who represents the RUCO Advisory Board on the task force.

The cost of staffing the minimum housing and RUCO program has decreased from a high of $736,736 in 2007-2008 to $547,454 in the current budget year, according to a report released by the city. The number of complaints has dropped from 2,340 in 2002-2003 to 459 in 2009-2010, while the number of identified substandard units has declined over the same period from 1,186 to 705.

Task force members disagreed on whether the city could save money by eliminating or modifying the RUCO program. Newton said she was told by Engineering & Inspections Director Butch Simmons that if RUCO were eliminated the administrative costs would remain the same because staff would still have to respond to complaints, adding, “The cost argument is not applicable.”

Sanford responded, “It’s disingenuous to say this program costs no money.”

Contending for speaking time in a room full of raise voices, Beth McKee-Huger, executive director of the Greensboro Housing Coalition, said, “The cost of the RUCO inspections is a cost, but it’s offset by not having as many complaints.”

Reynolds also championed the program, noting that city council "told us to put this in place, and we weren't getting any more money" when the program was first conceived, and adding, "I don't know how you could get any more effective program than this."

With its members seemingly deadlocked, Sims suggested that the onus was on the task force to come up with something.

“City council is looking at us to give them a recommendation,” he said. “We’re the smart folks. We’ve been living and breathing this. We need to give them something different than what we’re doing.”

Newton disputed the statement.

“We were not told to give them something different,” she said. “We were told to give them a recommendation.”

To that, Dellinger said, “It’s also come to our attention that there is a movement on city council to….”

Sims finished her sentence: “Go to a complaint-based system, and even, in some quiet corners, to do away with it altogether.”

Early in the meeting, Newton caused distress among some of her fellow task force members by expressing the view that the makeup of the RUCO Advisory Board, which hears and determines appeals from decisions of the building inspector, should include more “representation from people who do not profit from rental property.”

Reynolds added that he receives questions about the board makeup “quite often,” and handed out a roster of members to delineate the various members' ties and affiliations. The roster shows that, not counting city council liaison Robbie Perkins and two staff members, six out of 11 members are either agents or owners of rental properties, including Dellinger; Sims; District 3 appointee Peter Placentino, who works for Brown Investment Properties; Bobby Akin of the Greensboro Landlords Association; Bryon Nelson of the Triad Apartment Association; and Todd Rotruck, the representative for the neighborhood congress.

Without mentioning Rotruck by name, Newton said that at the time he was appointed the neighborhood congress representative was actively involved in neighborhood issues, but said her organization will probably replace him with “a neighborhood person who experiences the impact of substandard property and good properties in their community.”

There are currently vacancies on the 15-member board in District 1, District 4 and at-large.

Sims issued a challenge: “It just takes a tenant to step up and say, ‘I’m a concerned citizen, I want to be on the RUCO Board.'"

Dellinger indicated that she doesn’t believe she and other RUCO Board members with ties to the real estate industry have a conflict of interest.

“I have 37 and a half years in this industry,” she said. “I represent multi-family and single-family homes. I don’t stand to profit by anything personally. And I’ve been the TREBIC representative, and TREBIC is not profiting. There’s no money going back in their pocket.”

Newton responded, “While you don’t stand to profit personally from a particular rental property, Lisa – and I think you’ve served well on this committee – that is who pays your bills.”

“I’m representing TREBIC,” Dellinger said. “I’m not representing Koury.”

“But TREBIC represents landlords who do profit from rental property,” Newton replied.

The next task force meeting is scheduled for July 30 at 8:30 a.m. at TREBIC’s offices, but it remains uncertain what the members will have to talk about.

Almost two hours into the first meeting, the sound of Reynolds' pen tapping was conspicuous amidst the silence of deadlock.

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