Salisbury Rental Changes On Life Support

SALISBURY — Everyone on the Salisbury City Council agreed Tuesday that a new angle is needed to energize the lagging discussion over rental inspections, but the jury was out on what that spark should be.

“We’re having the same discussion, as people have noted, we’ve had before,” said Mayor Jim Ireton.

In an uncharacteristic moment of agreement, the often at odds council majority and minority both echoed Ireton’s thoughts.

“It defies logic that we can’t get this done right … We’ve been having almost this same discussion for the six years I’ve been on council,” said Councilwoman Deborah Campbell.

“We’re talking things to death,” agreed Councilwoman Shanie Shields.

The current discussion on new rental inspection regulations is stalled over how exactly to avoid invasion of privacy issues, while still making inspections mandatory for all rental properties. As it stands, the proposal the council reviewed Tuesday would require all rental properties to go through an inspection once every 36 months, usually at the time of turnover when new tenants come in. Failure to accept an inspection during that period would make a property ineligible for renewal of a rental license.

However, even if the property owner agrees to a city inspection, the tenant would retain the right to refuse, which officials worry would defeat the purpose of mandatory inspections.

“I think for all of these programs that is an issue,” said city attorney Paul Wilbur.

Ideas for solutions varied amongst the council. Campbell suggested seeking the advice of an attorney who specialized in rental properties. Such an attorney would have particular experience that Wilbur did not and would shed new light on the discussion. Campbell also urged expediency, since every day the city lingered over a decision was one more without a solid policy in place.

“In our city, people living in problem properties have suffered way too long,” she said.

Some of the council felt that hiring a lawyer to craft an ordinance with tighter language would be a case of treating a symptom while ignoring the disease.

“Here we have this ‘us against them’ mentality,” said Councilwoman Laura Mitchell, referring to the division between government and property owners.

Mitchell argued that city officials keep trying to twist tenants’ arms to force inspections when what they should be doing is fostering a better relationship with both sides.

“If you want to change the result, you have to change the approach,” she said.

To achieve that, Mitchell said she would like to see the council meet with both landlords and tenants to allow them some input on the new ordinance so that the city doesn’t have to force its way in with mandatory inspections, especially random ones. However, Ireton didn’t think that all parties involved would play ball.

In his opinion, some landlords pressure their tenants not to cooperate with the city to avoid having their property inspected.

“Their [tenants] mouth says, ‘I can’t let you in here.’ But their eyes tell a whole different story,” said Ireton.

Neighborhood Services and Code Compliance (NSCC) Director Tom Stevenson said that whatever the final ordinance is, it will need teeth to back it up.

“Ultimately if we’re looking to gain access to properties it will be through an administrative search warrant,” he told the assembly.

The council decided to look into what kind of costs would be associated with hiring an attorney who specializes in rental properties as well as how long it would take to go through the ordinance process.