I was not at the recent meeting for the proposed Town Inspection Code but wanted to put my “two cents” into the discussion. I have been a landlord for more than thirty years and currently own forty rental units in Front Royal on Cherrydale Avenue (which will not be subject to the proposed inspection code). When we bought these units, they were one step from slums. Our intent was to “provide decent housing at reasonable cost for deserving people.” I had considerable experience with rental units previously and thought this would be a way to serve people who sometimes fall through the cracks.
On the day that we took possession, there were more than thirty water leaks and a number of jacked-up vehicles in various states of repair distributed around the property. Less than twenty keys were provided by the prior owner and most of the exterior doors did not lock. The siding was asbestos. Interestingly, the tenants were responsible for cutting the grass in front of their apartment even if they lived on the second floor. There were no stoves and few refrigerators. Tenants were responsible for providing these themselves.
Several hundred thousand dollars later, we had a much improved property with new kitchen cabinetry, steel entrance doors and dead-bolt locks, new bathrooms, carpet, appliances, etc. and began to rent to our new tenancy. After about ten years, I told my wife that we were going to change the motto. She asked what the new one was. I told her that the new motto was “We will not be your next victim.” We once again began to renovate for the second time. New tenants were required to have decent credit, adequate income and a few other qualifications that pertain to responsible people.
So, having had considerable rental experience with both those in the lower income bracket and those who have higher income, I feel qualified to comment on the upcoming inspection code.
First of all, it is virtually impossible to provide decent housing at a low price. Everything done to maintain or improve property costs money. This in turn causes rents to rise and therefore causes real estate taxes to rise. The better the apartment is, the higher the rent is. The better the rental unit is the better tenant who will be attracted.
Poorly maintained rental units are less desirable and are frequently, all that an individual can afford. They may be a single mother with one or more children, a menial job and no education. Their spouse or baby-daddy may have left them. They sometimes live on food stamps. Maybe they have been abused or have an alcohol or drug problem. Whatever the issues, these people need a place to live that is cheap. That is all that they can afford.
One little change causes their entire world to collapse. The car won’t start or their babysitter didn’t show so they cannot go to work. Then their rent becomes overdue and the Town shuts off their utilities. If they cannot find a way to resolve this, they might vacate their apartment without notice, sometimes leaving huge piles of furniture, rotting food and a filthy apartment. The apartment will be vacant until the landlord finds a new tenant and does what is necessary to get the apartment rented. Fixing the bare minimum will not make the apartment attract more responsible people. A large expenditure will likely result in better tenants but the price will rise considerably and those who are not economically viable will not be able to afford the higher rent. Where are they going to live?
It would seem that a rental unit inspection prior to occupancy would solve the problems associated with poorly maintained rental housing but it will not in my opinion. An inspection will not improve the rental unit appreciably. It will simply mean that the landlord will repair the items delineated in the inspection report. Door and window locks, lack of heat, leaks and sagging floors, might be repaired but the unit will still be a slum.
As an example, suppose that the kitchen ceiling is sagging from a plugged toilet upstairs. The inspector requires the owner to repair the ceiling and fix the toilet. The owner sends someone to the upstairs apartment to unstop the toilet and puts a piece of quarter-inch plywood over the sagging ceiling, attaches it using drywall screws and the job is done. It meets the inspector’s requirement but the apartment is still substandard and has not been improved at all.
Interior painting, replacement of older appliances, new bathrooms, etc. are not included in inspection deficiencies that could be done to improve the apartment unit but a landlord cannot be compelled to make the changes that could be made. Therefore, the inspection items will be completed and the rent will rise to pay for these costs. Meanwhile, the unit will still be a slum.
The Town previously had an inspection law that I personally succeeded in having overturned by the Circuit Court. This was due to the fact that the ordinance that the Town passed violated state statutes (which the town fathers knew about from the beginning but chose to enact anyway).
Typically, this is the way it would work: Before an apartment could be rented, the landlord would make an application for an inspection. The inspection was scheduled for a certain day (which could be in one day or several days later). No time was given so the owner would need to make arrangements to have someone available all day while waiting for the inspector. Ultimately, the inspector would arrive and always find several insignificant items that needed repair. I was once cited for a light switch cover that had “speckles” of paint on it. Once the required repairs were done, the apartment would have to be re-inspected before occupancy which meant going through the entire scheduling routine again.
The proposed ordinance under consideration would also require the owner to pay a fee to the town for the inspection. The cost of the inspection, waiting time for the owner, etc. would fall on the owner. If the inspector found nothing wrong, the costs for compliance would still fall on the owner and once again, the costs will be passed on to the tenant who cannot afford to pay more rent. Further, it is likely that deficiencies will be minor and the rental unit will still be a slum.
So how do we make an attempt at resolving at least some of the problems with substandard housing without causing expense to the owner and tenant for an inspection and the creation of an entire new department in city hall? A simple idea would be to have the Town include a notice to new tenants when having the utilities put in their name. The notice would inform them that they can ask for an inspection either by the Town or a shared inspector from the County acting on behalf of the Town. A checklist of serious violations could be printed on the form and the tenant could check off what they think is wrong and either call, email or deliver the form to the appropriate Town office. This will NOT rectify the slum or substandard rental properties in our town but neither will an “inspection law.” At least this would allow tenants from any location in town to call for an inspection. The new proposed ordinance only applies to certain parts of town that have been designated as “blighted” such as downtown and surrounding areas.
Winchester, Portsmouth, Petersburg and almost every other town in Virginia has slums and substandard housing. Have they found a way to solve their problems? Answer: Not to my knowledge.
The concept of a new inspection ordinance to replace the one found illegal is almost worthless. The previous one did not change anything (when the old law was in effect) and a new will not change it this time.
Town Council: Show us some personal initiative and go out and research to see what other communities have done and find out if they were successful. Simply sitting in a chair and voting for a new ordinance when the old one was of no value will not fix the problem. Hopefully, someone is listening and willing to work to solve these issues.