City may crack down on landlords

By Tom Joyce -

Mount Airy officials are contemplating stricter measures on rental property.

Faced with ongoing complaints about substandard rental housing in the city limits, the Board of Commissioners is considering the possibility of measures such as imposing an inspection program for problem properties.

That issue was discussed during a council meeting on Aug. 4, which was attended by local residents who’ve regularly shown up at meetings to complain about a house on West Lebanon Street being rented by multiple tenants. Neighbors have voiced complaints about nuisance issues such as trash on the property and structural problems with the house which are in violation of minimum housing codes.

And at the urging of Commissioner Steve Yokeley, the council discussed what it might do in response to rental housing that has proven to be problematic. This includes taking advantage of provisions in state law allowing a city to inspect such properties for compliance with housing regulations.

“There is an enforcement mechanism available,” City Attorney Hugh Campbell said in outlining the issue to fellow Mount Airy officials last week.

Campbell said properties with “a history of violations” can be placed into a program that includes periodic inspections by city code enforcement personnel.

This also can include requiring rental property to be registered and a landlord to obtain a permit before renting out a unit.

Although no action was taken on the proposal that municipal officials were discussing for the first time last week, there was sentiment among the city board for getting tougher on landlords who are chronic violators.

That included Commissioner Jon Cawley seeming to favor going beyond an inspection/permitting process in asking Campbell to identity the point at which the city government “can do something with teeth in it” regarding those who continue to cause problems.

“Can we take somebody’s right to be a landlord away?” Cawley asked.

Campbell said the municipality’s ability to do that is limited, especially if nuisance issues are involved as opposed to minimum housing code violations.

“I don’t think taking away the right of somebody to be a landlord is something that is ever going to be available,” Campbell said in explaining that this enters the realm of infringing on private property rights.

He indicated that eliminating the right of someone to be a landlord is strictly forbidden from a nuisance standpoint, since this can involve a subjective decision. “There’s no law to provide for the city to do that.”

Caution urged

The city attorney said there also is another consideration involved with instituting a rental-property inspection program in a smaller community such as Mount Airy — having the financial/personnel resources to enforce such a policy.

“That’s another layer of supervision and inspection,” said Campbell, who also said the impact of an inspection program on the landlord community also must be taken into account.

The welfare of people who rent houses or apartments is an additional factor. While nuisance violations typically are reported by neighbors, minimum-housing rules affect the quality of life of the tenants.

And they are the likely ones to initiate a code investigation, though renters might be reluctant to do so — possibly due to fears of finding themselves out in the cold altogether.

This has been witnessed with the house on West Lebanon Street, according to city Planning Director Andy Goodall, where the complaints have come from adjoining residents.

“There have been no complaints from the tenants,” Goodall said.

Commissioner Shirley Brinkley expressed concern for the renters during the recent meeting.

“We are trying to take care of a problem, but the solution that is left could be people on the street,” Brinkley said.

“What are we going to do about the people who need a place to live?”

The city attorney suggested, and the council agreed, that before Mount Airy launches a rental inspection program it should seek further information and guidance. This will include consulting with Richard Smith, who heads the Benchmark firm that supplies planning services to the city.

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.

By Tom Joyce

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