Concerns Continue Over Mandatory Rental Inspection Plan

SALISBURY — Eventual guidelines for how Salisbury will conduct inspections on rental properties inched forward Monday, though officials predicted that it will be several months at least before anything is etched in stone.

“I’m more interested in doing it right then trying to rush through,” said Council President Terry Cohen.

How the city will handle rental inspections has already been a topic of concern for months. The proposed plan will likely call for each rental property to be inspected at least once every three years, usually at the time when the property turns over to a new tenant. Inspections would be mandatory and a requirement for having a rental license renewed.

Neighborhood Services and Code Compliance (NSCC) Director Tom Stevenson tried to address some of the concerns voiced by the council during previous meetings.

“We still have the high arching goal of ensuring that rental properties are safe, clean and code-compliant,” he said.

Earlier versions of the plan considered making inspections an annual requirement, but Stevenson told the council that with his current staff, each officer would need to inspect a property every hour on every available work day to meet that goal.

“I just do not believe we can keep up that kind of pace,” he said.

While he was in favor of an inspection every three years, Stevenson admitted that the deadline could be widened, though not by much.

“I don’t think that any unit should go more than five years, which is a very long time, without some kind of comprehensive inspection,” he said.

Councilwoman Shanie Shields expressed a fear that properties that failed inspection would have their tenants evicted immediately.

“We don’t put anybody on the street,” said Stevenson.

According to Stevenson, the number of tenants removed because of failed inspections is “very low” and is not an immediate process.

Stevenson also focused on worries mentioned by Councilwoman Laura Mitchell about random mandatory inspections of rental properties.

“We weren’t beating the doors down,” he said.

According to Stevenson, the city has tried to “saturate” random neighborhoods with multiple services all at once. These services often included code enforcement officers looking to inspect rental properties. While the program was the brainchild of Stevenson, he told the council Monday that he would recommend stopping it for now, though he still sees potential for it down the road if tweaked.

Cohen remarked that it would be beneficial for the public to understand that rental inspections followed a particular routine.

“It’s very planned,” she said. “It’s not just a haphazard approach.”

At a previous meeting, Shields raised the question of whether or not the inspections done by the Salisbury Housing Authority (SHA) could be substituted for a NSCC inspection. Stevenson said that he looked into the idea, but that SHA inspections only cover a tiny portion of the properties in Salisbury, roughly 300 rental units.

“That represents only about 3 percent of the total rental units in the city of Salisbury,” he said.

Because of the low number of properties, and the fact that Stevenson is more comfortable with an inspection if it is conducted by his officers, he recommended that SHA inspections not reset the three-year requirement.

Additionally, Stevenson advised that inspections conducted as a result of an official complaint being lodged should not reset the timer either. He explained that, though his officers do check all aspects of a property when they come in to review a specific problem, they aren’t doing a comprehensive inspection.

Perhaps the most contentious issue that has the council hesitating to adopt an official plan is exactly how to make the program mandatory. As a condition for license approval, the city can force a property owner to allow an inspection. However, getting the tenant to cooperate is a bit murkier.

The idea of making tenants agree to city inspections when they sign their lease agreement gave some council members heartburn.

“I can’t see how you can get away with that,” said Mitchell.

Mitchell asserted that the city would be setting up a “catch-22” by trying to protect tenants by forcing inspectors on the property. Mitchell predicted the matter going to court if Salisbury pursued the current plan.

“I think in this area we have to tread very carefully,” she said.

While the council had initially hoped to have something on the books by March 1, when rental licenses are renewed, members agreed that it would be pointless to rush a policy now because it wouldn’t go into effect this year regardless, since it is physically impossible to inspect all approximately 8000 rental properties between now and March.