Rental ordinance has property owners at odds
by Laura Camper
Jul 02, 2010 | 4171 views |  2 comments | 17 17 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A new law championed by a group of Anniston residents that requires inspections of vacant rentals before new occupants move in is getting a test before it even goes into effect.

The law, passed unanimously by the City Council on June 22, is being challenged by Councilman Ben Little, who was late to the meeting and wasn’t involved in the discussion or vote. Little believes the ordinance was improperly moved to the regular meeting for vote because there was no emergency requiring that. He also has some issues with the ordinance itself.

“We have a few slumlords here; we’re identifying them and I think we (should) see what we have on the books right now for the laws to deal with the problem,” Little said. “I think we have laws on the books right now to deal with it.”

The city already has nuisance laws and codes for homes. Those laws should be enforced before making more laws, he said.

Those laws are hard to enforce for rentals, though. Mack Burt, who has lived in Anniston for 42 years, is a supporter of the ordinance because of the deterioration he has seen in its neighborhoods over the years.

“And a lot of it is because of rental properties and because people just don’t care,” Burt said. “My motivation is for Anniston to be a better place. That’s the only place I’m coming from.”

A group of Anniston residents who say they are trying to improve their neighborhoods helped get the law passed, and they say they hope it will stay on the books. Some city landlords disagree, however.

Little believes the ordinance is hard on landlords. It doesn’t require the same level of responsibility of tenants, and as a former landlord, he can easily identify with the landlords.

“If you’re going to require the landlord to do this, this and this to their property before someone moves in, then what is the city responsibility when that individual does not pay the rent that they’re supposed to,” Little said.

The inspection ordinance however, does not require the landlord to maintain the house; state law does. The Landlord-Tenant Act passed by the Legislature in 2007 requires that landlords make sure rental homes meet all building and housing codes and keep the property in working order.

The state law also lists the responsibilities of tenants, including keeping the property clean, avoiding disturbing the neighbors and paying their rent on time.

It also provides protections for both the tenant and the landlord by standardizing eviction processes across the state and giving tenants the means to get out of a lease if the landlord isn’t maintaining the property.

The city law would just allow Anniston to enforce the state law, Code Enforcement Officer Tana Bryant said. Without getting into the homes, it is difficult for the city to make sure landlords are complying with the state law, she said. The certificate of occupancy also gives the landlord proof that the property was in good condition before the tenant moved in, Bryant said.

The city ordinance is very fair, said Genie Sparks, one of the local residents who spearheaded the effort to create the ordinance.

“It’s just a decency act,” Sparks said. “The main thing is to try to make people be responsible for their property, to try to get them to be responsible for their property and for the neighborhoods in which their property exists.

The majority of landlords will see little change in how they have to maintain their properties; the landlords hit hard by the ordinance will be those who don’t maintain them now, Sparks said.

She and a group of residents became interested in trying to clean up their neighborhoods after several teenagers began fighting in her yard on Highland Avenue, she said. It was the last straw for a neighborhood at the mercy of absent landlords who were not watching over their properties, she said.

“It had been going on for quite a while and we were all just staying indoors,” Sparks said.

That was when she asked neighbors and friends to her home to try and come up with a solution.

“We’ve already had a pretty big effect on our neighborhood,” Sparks said. “We’ve been developing congenial relationships with the police officers, good, non-adversarial relationships with the people who work with the city.”

However, trying to get landlords to work with them was difficult. That was when Kevin Qualls, also a resident on Highland Avenue, mentioned that his parents, who were landlords in Gadsden, had to have their rental properties inspected by the city.

“One of the biggest hassles for them was to unstick all the windows in these old 1940s era little cabana homes,” Qualls said. “A lot of sweat was involved with breaking those free but really since that initial effort that we put forth to get their homes up to par, really, it hasn’t been much of a burden.”

His parents actually like the ordinance because their homes are looking so nice. The neighboring rentals are looking nice. The renters are taking pride in the homes and some have even planted flowers in the yards, Qualls said. (Qualls is a former employee of The Star.)

The group got a copy of the ordinance and worked with Bryant to create an almost identical law for Anniston.

The ordinance requires that vacant rental properties be inspected by city inspectors to make sure they comply with building codes applicable to the landlord-tenant act. If the property passes inspection, the landlord will be given a certificate of occupancy which the tenant must present to get the water turned on at the home. The inspection will cost $50 which includes a follow-up inspection if the home doesn’t pass the initial inspection.

Willie Criner, a landlord with 45 properties, had one of his rentals inspected Thursday morning. It went pretty much as he expected.

“It’s going to cost me some money, I’m not going to lie,” Criner said. “It’s going to cost me probably at least a couple thousand dollars.”

He needs to put screens on windows and smoke detectors in every bedroom, and that’s expensive in a business that has a very small profit margin. But Criner doesn’t have a problem with the ordinance. He knows that after the ordinance goes into effect, his properties will fill up, while other landlords who don’t take care of their properties will see their rentals stay empty.

He’s even decided to take the test to become an inspector for the city.

“It’s going to help the city,” Criner said.

Not all landlords are as comfortable with the ordinance. A number of landlords e-mailed The Star in opposition to the ordinance, but none wanted to be quoted in the paper.

One complaint is the $50 fee for the inspection – which landlords are likely to pass on to their renters.

It’s a small amount if spread over a year, but for low-income renters, the ones most likely to be living in substandard housing, it can have an effect on their budgets, Ron Gilbert, policy analyst for Alabama Arise, said in a written response to questions.

The city has a large number of renters in low-income housing. There are 222 residents participating in the federal Section 8 housing program, which allows renters to pay rent as a portion of their income and subsidizes the rest. The city also has 748 public housing units. There are 173 people on the waiting list for Section 8 and 115 on the waiting list for public housing.

“While I'd think that the licensure would be a business expense, and therefore deductible from earnings from the dwelling, even if the rent was increased $2 per month with the assurance that health and safety codes were met it might well be worth it,” Gilbert said. “The basic question that has to be answered is whether the community wishes to eliminate or reduce substandard housing or is substandard housing better than nothing. In general, I think that it's dangerous to say that we cannot offer basic protections to low-income people because of the cost.”

Contact staff writer Laura Camper at 256-235-3545.

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