City staff proposes amendments to Greensboro's rental unit ordinance

Last week, a city council subcommittee held the first of four meetings which will address and plan a process of amending Greensboro’s Minimum Housing Code in order to develop and enforce a stricter protocol of inspecting and certifying rental dwelling units citywide. The new ordinance would in effect replace the Rental Unit Certificate of Occupancy (RUCO) program, which facilitated inspections and improvements to a plethora of Greensboro rental properties from 2003 to 2011. 

RUCO became defunct in June 2011, when the NC General Assembly adopted a law requiring a basis of “reasonable cause” for all residential inspections. 

In March 2012, the city manager’s office formed a Post-RUCO Study Committee to, within the framework of the new state law, develop a plan to bolster Greensboro’s minimum housing code.

Several organizations, including the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress, the Greensboro Housing Coalition, the Tenants Association of Greensboro, the Greensboro Human Relations Commission, the Greensboro Minimum Housing Commission, the Piedmont Triad Apartment Association, the Greensboro Landlord Association and the Triad Real Estate & Building Industry Coalition, or TREBIC, along with city staff, are represented on the committee.

Representatives from the Planning and Community Development, police, fire, human relations departments and the city attorney’s office are also part of the committee. Byron Nelson, who also served as chair of the RUCO board, presides over the committee.

From March 2012 to January 2013, the committee studied and discussed the state law, as well as current data, processes and policies. Although some of the organizations are not in full agreement on various aspects, the committee drafted a proposed amendment. City staff then formed a series of recommendations regarding the amendment, with the intent to balance the needs of landlords, tenants and the community.

The focal point of the March 7 meeting was Planning and Community Development Director Sue Schwartz’s presentation of the amendment and staff recommendations to city council’s Post-RUCO Review Committee. Councilwoman Nancy Hoffman serves as chair of the subcommittee, which also consists of Marikay Abuzuaiter Yvonne Johnson and Nancy Vaughan.

The proposal was made available for everyone in attendance as part of a comprehensive 17-page packet that also included a flowchart of the proposed enforcement process, a matrix summarizing the committee’s agreement or discord on each issue and a full copy of the state law. The Greensboro Neighborhood Congress is waiting to officially announce its positions until after hearing the public discussion at subsequent meetings, the next of which takes place on March 17.

The proposed ordinance begins by explaining the situations that constitute “reasonable cause,” including complaints, knowledge of unsafe conditions, visible proof of code violation from outside the property and an owner having more than two uncured violations within a 12-month period. Inspections can be made based on any of these scenarios.

If inspectors cite one major code violation (issues of life safety), or more than five minor violations, owners would have to attend a hearing to discuss the violations and a timetable of compliance. The property owner then would receive an order to repair, alter or improve violations.
The committee proposes immediate implementation of a cure period for property owners to correct a violation of the code. Violations that jeopardize life safety must be corrected within 48 hours of an issuance of the order to repair. Other violations require correcting within the 30 days. Owners can request for an extension of the cure period, but the city must also approve it. In all cases, a re-inspection would occur at the end of the cure period.

The current ordinance allows very lengthy extensions, meaning that in some cases, the time between the order to repair issuance and the re-inspection can take up to 270 days. To prevent landlords from taking advantage of this, the new proposal would limit extensions to 60 days, shortening this window to a maximum total of 90 days. 

If all violations are corrected by the re-inspection, the case is closed, but if not, the owner is charged a $150 fee and this process is repeated until full compliance is achieved. The next fee would be doubled, and owners would pay $400 for any further re-inspections that show non-compliance. Cases would not be closed until all violations are corrected and the applicable fees and penalties are paid in full. 

There is disagreement among the study committee regarding what should constitute “delinquent violations of the minimum housing code,” the basic threshold for opening a case. Most of the committee agrees with city staff’s recommendation of one major violation or more than five minor violations in the past 12 months to be the threshold. The Greensboro Housing Coalition opposes it though, favoring the current threshold of any two uncured violations of any type. The tenants association of Greensboro does not support the proposed threshold since major and minor violations are not defined in the ordinance. While some committee members are willing to make a distinction between the two violation types in the ordinance, the city staff declines to do so, citing the International Property Maintenance Code as the origin of major and minor violations. 

The immediate implementation of the cure period is one of the rare proposed items that the study committee fully agrees on. They believe it will expedite the repair process while being flexible enough to address complex situations. 

“The goal of all of this is compliance,” Schwartz said at the presentation. 

City staff’s proposal includes two recommendations they believe would theoretically stop landlords from being chronically non-compliant with the minimum housing code. The two items are still areas of disagreement among the study committee and are recommended by city staff for delayed implementation. Nine months would be needed to address software changes, operational policies and potential staffing needs.

One item would allow the inspection of all rental property owned by landlords with more than two verified, uncured violations within a 12-month span. The housing coalition and the tenant’s association of Greensboro support this recommendation, while the rest of the study committee (again, excluding the neighborhood congress) are opposed. Their reasoning is that landlords can own just one problem unit among hundreds of complying units that may not normally require inspection, but would so under this amendment. 

Opponents of this item believe that not all, but instead a certain percentage of units owned by these landlords should be inspected, unless violations of one unit threaten the safety and habitability of other units in its building or complex, in which case all of those units should be inspected.  

City staff also recommends establishing a registration program for properties with more than two uncured violations. The goal of this is to create a public list of substandard units to not only inform the renting community, but to encourage property owners to correct violations quicker in hopes of avoiding being a part of the program. The recommendation elicits a very similar split within the committee to the item above, with the only difference being that the human relations department is in favor of the registration program, siding with the housing coalition and tenant’s association.  

The minimum housing commission, apartment association, landlord association, TREBIC and the chair, who agree on nearly the every aspect of the proposal, are strongly opposed to the registration program. This item even conditionally affects their stance on the implementation of escalating re-inspection fees. The parties are in favor of the fees, but only under the condition that there would not be a registration program formed, as they believe that the re-inspection fees will sufficiently stimulate property owners to correct violations. They also claim that the registration program would be an ineffective bureaucracy, failing to be a deterrent to renters. 

The study committee is in full agreement that landlords would be exempted from any penalties or fees for tenant-caused violations. They disagree, however, on whether the tenants should then be charged the fees. The housing coalition, tenant’s association and city staff, believe administering fees to tenants would be impractical, with city staff stating that tenant damages are a legal matter between the tenant and landlord. The rest of the committee is in favor of tenant fees, claiming that they will deter tenants from calling in frivolous complaints to avoid paying rent when they are actually responsible for the violations.

“We try our best to determine who is responsible,” Schwartz said.

In addition to these proposed amendments, the PCD staff recommends expanding the public discussion of the proposed ordinance to receive a broader public input. They also want to make an effort to further educate tenants, neighborhoods and landlords (especially first-timers) regarding minimum housing standards. The staff plans on drafting the education plan by June. 

The city council subcommittee members spoke following Schwartz’s presentation.

Nancy Vaughan requested a more detailed matrix of the study committee’s stances to make it easier to develop compromises to the areas of disagreement.

“I think our focus is really on what the disagreements are and how we can resolve them,” Vaughan said.

The next meeting on Monday, March 17 will focus on public comments and alternate proposals. Each speaker will have five minutes to discuss the ordinance. The city council subcommittee will then enter a work session to approve amendments before the final two meetings on April 11 and 18.

It’s closing in on two years since RUCO was ended. Action to add teeth to Greensboro’s rental dwelling unit ordinance has been very slow-moving since then, but the presentation at last week’s meeting was a substantial step towards implementing amendments to the ordinance. Yvonne Johnson echoed this sentiment with intent to make further progress. 

“This is a very good start,” Johnson said. “I want to move forward with this as soon as possible.”

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