SALISBURY — The line between privacy and protection was questioned Monday when the Salisbury City Council attempted to iron out details on a rental inspection program.
“The goal is equality in enforcement and protection,” said Mayor Jim Ireton.
The council remained divided over what exactly would constitute equal enforcement and protection, however. Under the program proposed by Neighborhood Services and Code Compliance (NSCC) Director Tom Stevenson, his office would make inspections of rental properties at least once every three years as a condition of maintaining a rental license.
“We believe and I believe strongly that we have recommended a manageable program,” Stevenson told the council.
Properties would be inspected when they changed owners, unless they had already been inspected within the last two years. Inspections could also be triggered by tenant, landlord or neighbor complaint as well as a lottery system or by neighborhood.
“I believe we can do things much the same way they were done in the past,” said Stevenson.
The main point that needed to be made, he added, was that whatever program the city went with, it must be a requirement.
“The key to this program is that it has to be mandatory … Without making it mandatory, we’re just wasting our time contacting people and having them say no,” Stevenson said.
While the council agreed unanimously that properties needed regular inspection, details like frequency and notification split the body.
Councilwoman Shanie Shields said many tenants feel “invaded” when the city drops in for an inspection. She advocated setting up the program so the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) inspections would fulfill the city requirement as well, to keep total inspections to a minimum.
“HUD goes through more than the city does,” said Shields.
Stevenson admitted that HUD covers the basics, including the minimum livability standards, which is the main focus of inspections by his office. However, he explained that NSCC checks for things beyond the minimum standards and noted that if his office ever has to testify in court on a property, it is much better to have done an inspection first hand, rather than relying on a second-hand account from HUD.
Councilwoman Laura Mitchell told the assembly that her biggest fear was that people would feel as though their liberties were being stressed. She took issue especially with NSCC doing inspections by neighborhood.
“If they just show up at your door … that’s an intrusion,” said Mitchell.
She acknowledged that NSCC does provide some notification on their website and in the newspaper about where they will be inspecting, but argued that many people are still caught by surprise.
“Many people just don’t get that notification,” said Mitchell, pointing out that not everyone paid close attention to the paper or the NSCC website.
According to Mitchell, the city is flirting with the assumption that tenants can’t be trusted to complain when conditions are bad because they’re afraid of their landlord and need to be pulled kicking and screaming through the inspection process. It was Ireton’s belief, however, that mandatory inspections are a necessity because it’s the only way the city can be sure of cooperation from renters and owners alike.
“The reason we have to do this is the industry stopped letting us in,” he said. “It’s not about having to side with tenant or landlord.”
The mayor noted that renters most tenacious about keeping inspectors out are admitting that they have “something to hide.”
That group falls into a minority, according to Councilwoman Deborah Campbell.
“I will concede that it’s probably the 80-20 [percent] rule here,” she said.
Campbell felt that the majority of rental properties in the city are kept in satisfactory condition by their owners and tenants. However, she claimed that the small percentage of properties that would fail an inspection would fail it dramatically due to serious building code and health violations.
The goal of the rental inspection program, said Campbell, was to “get at the 20 percent.”
That’s one reason why she supported mandatory inspections when a property changes tenants.
“The most problematic properties seem to turn over the most,” Campbell said.
Mitchell wasn’t as worried with inspections on turnover as she was with neighborhood sweeps, but stressed the use of a light touch when drafting the law.
“I’m concerned that it could be overused,” she said of the program.
Council President Terry Cohen asked the city administration to review some of the suggestions and anxieties voiced by both sides when working on the ordinance in the coming weeks.
“Take a shot at it,” she requested.