BERLIN — Landlords caught disobeying the housing code in Berlin will likely face much stricter penalties in the near future with the introduction of a town rental license.
According to Planning and Zoning Director Chuck Ward, issues that Berlin has been having with a few wayward landlords do not require adjusting the town’s housing laws.
“We have adequate codes,” he informed the Mayor and Council Monday. “The important aspects are currently covered.”
Instead, Ward suggested the current codes need “more teeth.” The council agreed, though Mayor Gee Williams explained that there are only a “handful of property owners” who abuse the system.
To that affect, Ward and town attorney Dave Gaskill outlined a plan where all renters within Berlin will need to apply for a rental license every year. Currently, landlords only need a standard business license to lease out property to tenants. With the new rental license, Ward explained the town would have considerably more enforcement power over renters who disobeyed housing codes since infractions against those codes could lead to their license being revoked.
“The intent is to have one license per owner,” said Ward.
Under that arrangement, a landlord would be issued one license for all of their properties. However, the council hesitated to link all rental properties together, since a violation at one location would cause the entire license to be revoked, effectively evicting all tenants, even if their units were up to code.
“It’s like when one student misbehaves, the whole class puts their head down,” said Williams.
The rest of the council was in accord, asking Ward and Gaskill to instead issue individual licenses per unit.
“I think we want to be tough, but to be fair,” Williams said.
Following that line of thought, the cost of a rental license was broached.
“We want the fees to be very reasonable,” said Williams.
The council felt the current $10 charged for a business license would be sufficient, since a rental license would be effectively replacing that. While the initial cost of the license would be low, the council did suggest fines for code violations be steep enough so they are not ignored.
Gaskill suggested that the council also consider changing some language in the legislation to make it easier for Ward to conduct property inspections when code violations are suspected.
Language was loosened to give Ward grounds to conduct an inspection without needing to cut through as much red tape. Additionally, Gaskill advised that a clause be inserted requiring all tenants in Berlin must agree to allow their unit to be inspected by town officials if needed. As of now, a landlord may inspect their property if they give sufficient notice to the tenant. However, if the owner is out of town or otherwise unavailable, Ward can’t inspect the interior of a unit if a tenant objects.
In Gaskill’s opinion, refusal of inspection from either the owner or the tenant should constitute an immediate “eradication” of the rental license for that unit. The council did question whether it was fair to revoke an owner’s license due to the actions of a tenant, however, so the specifics of that are still under consideration.
Ernie Gerardi, a concerned property owner who attended the work session, asserted that the town was “overreaching” its authority by trying to force unwilling tenants to allow interior inspections. He pointed out that the goal of the rental license is to protect tenants, so if a tenant doesn’t want their unit inspected, the town should leave well enough alone.
Williams countered, explaining that the purpose of the rental license was to protect tenants living in unsatisfactory conditions but also to protect the neighbors of those tenants who might have to live next to an unsightly property.
“We’re trying to get down to the problems we can’t do anything about,” he said.
Ward added that his inspections can’t be “arbitrary or capricious” or the results wouldn’t stand up in court. He recommended that the council use the language “where there is evidence” to justify an interior inspection.
Danny Moore, another concerned property owner, was less worried about the town overextending its authority and more interested in seeing if the council would apply the “teeth” they mentioned to enforcing their new policies.
“Nobody has the guts to do what you need to do,” said Moore.
Ward informed Moore that his office currently imposes what penalties it can against violators. However, he explained that fines can be ignored until a property is up for sale.
“Right now we do not have the authority to revoke licenses,” he said.
Williams concurred and said that the town often felt “boxed in” when dealing with owners who willfully ignore the housing code.
“If you can’t enforce community standards, why have a damn community?” he argued.
The legislations will officially be introduced by the council next Monday, with a public hearing on the issue two weeks after. Even if everything passes, an exact date of when the licensing would go into effect hasn’t been hashed out yet, though Williams feels the sooner the better.
“There’s no point doing all of this if you can’t get it started,” he said.
Williams added property owners who already possess a business license won’t need to worry about paying an additional fee for the rental license this year.