By Brandi Makuski
City leaders are considering a new program to better regulate rental properties.
Part of an ongoing discussion on rewriting the city’s property maintenance codes, Common Council members on April 17 considered its options on making new law allowing city staff to regularly inspect rental properties.
Currently, inspections occur only when a complaint is made.
“Historically, some of the problems we’ve seen involve older properties with knob and tube wiring, that weren’t built to today’s code standards, no sprinkler systems…and a lot of those have been single or two-family dwellings,” said Michael Ostrowski, director of community development.
Ostrowski said the ultimate goal is safety, and told the council it should consider all rental units equally — not just student rentals.
“Do we want to continue the way we are, or expand this program, or go on a complaint-based program, or do more outreach and education?” He asked the council.
Garrett Ryan, outgoing alderman for the city’s 3rd District, said problems with rental properties are among the chief concerns he’s heard from constituents.
“I’ve read paragraphs of reports and can’t believe people live there,” said Ryan, whose district includes many off-campus student rentals. “[But] funding is another thing; I don’t know how we’re going to fund [this program]. I do think it is the city’s obligation to provide safe housing to the people that [sic] live in our community.”
Ald. Meleesa Johnson also said she believes the city should implement the program because it can only help renters in the city.
“I’ve been there before, raising my family in ‘affordable housing’ that was unsafe, and I would have liked my municipality to have [helped],” Johnson said. “But I think we’re focusing on poorly-managed rentals; we have a lot of really great rentals in this community, and I think we need to highlight them. Having a program that shows they are not only affordable, they are conveniently located, [and] they pass a rental inspection, really kind of puts a gold star on them when people are looking for something.”
Mayor Mike Wiza said state law requires the city to inspect all rental properties — or none at all.
“Keep in mind, if we have to charge large inspections fees to pay for staff, the landlords are likely going to pass those fees on to the tenants,” Wiza said. “I’m not saying we shouldn’t do it, I’m saying you need to look at the whole picture.”
Fire Chief Bob Finn said he also supported a policy that required better safety, noting several student rental homes in recent years have caught fire due to old wiring that wasn’t up to code.
“It’s not just college students, it’s the elderly, it’s everyone,” Finn said. “We go on calls daily where people don’t have operating smoke detectors, and we’re giving them smoke detectors free so they have a safe place to live. [Sometimes] people are afraid to call to complain; no one should have to live without a CO detector or a smoke detector. I think we can work this out because the residents deserves that from us.”
Travis Haines, a broker with Candlewood Property Management, said his company inspects its properties annually, but called the proposal “a little extreme”.
“I don’t think anybody doesn’t want safe housing,” Haines said. “As a landlord, we have the most to lose for not providing safe housing. Everything, for me, is driven by liability. If safety is the goal, why draw the line at rental housing? Where’s the line getting drawn at?”
Haines also questioned to what extent home would be inspected.
“Are [inspectors] looking for knob and tube wiring, and if so, what are they doing about it?” He asked. “I see the city as the last line of defense, not the first. If the landlord is not cooperative, that’s when the city should be stepping in — to create a rather large, bureaucratic program to inspect half the properties in town at a significant cost is, to some extent, I think a little extreme.”
According to Ostrowski, several years ago the city licensed rental properties with three or more units, or four-plus occupants in a single unit — but that law was changed in the 1970s and the city now only allows two unrelated tenants per unit.
Properties licensed under the old law were grandfathered in, Ostrowski said, but he added enforcement of rental laws — there are over 5,000 such units in the city — is tough.
“This would require a fairly substantial uptick in staff,” he said. “At least another inspector, maybe two, maybe a part or full-time administrative position.”
Funds to pay for the additional staff would come from the inspection fees, he said.
But several questions remain unanswered, and council members said they wanted more direction from Ostrowski’s department before considering a vote on the issue.
Ostrowski has been asked to return at a future meeting with recommendations from his office on a possible program. At press, no date has been scheduled.