Covington, Kentucky

Commission to Vote on Proposed Rental Inspection Program

The Covington City Commission on Tuesday will vote on the proposed rental inspection program. Here is the language used by the city clerk on the commission agenda to describe the program:

The language of the new ordinance will require owners of rental properties to obtain a rental dwelling unit license and allow the City's designated building inspectors to inspect the interior rental properties when one or more of the rental inspection "triggers" occur. These triggers include broken windows, a damaged roof, damaged or missing gutters, damaged or rotted stairs or porches/balconies, grass or weeds over ten inches in height, damaged exterior walls, and prohibited garbage set-outs. Once inside the property, the inspectors have the authority to cite the owner for any violations of the current building code or to suspend a rental dwelling license for uncorrected violations. There will be a $30 per unit fee to cover the costs associated with the inspection, but no cost for the rental dwelling unit licenses. City staff met with a variety of local stakeholders and much of the feedback that was received was incorporated into the language included in this ordinance. 

City administrators Larisa Sims and Mike Yeager will present the ordinance to the commission on Tuesday with the recommendation that it pass. City Hall was packed a month ago when the ordinance was read for the first time, receiving mixed reactions. Property owners were generally opposed while residents were in favor (SEE: Rental Inspection Program Gets Mixed Reaction).

"I think it's a key to moving the city forward with providing safe and decent housing for people," said City Manager Larry Klein. "It's important for people who live there, next door and property owners. It's key to making sure housing inside and out is safe and decent." Klein said that there have been no changes to the ordinance since the last meeting but that Yeager and other staff members met with property owners. One item that was discussed was that in Hamilton County (Cincinnati) there is an eviction history list available online that is not available in Kentucky. Klein said that the city has been in talks with all three Northern Kentucky counties about launching a similar online program so that property owners can better screen prospective tenants.

Bill Fox, a property owner who said that he has renovated roughly twenty properties in Covington's Mainstrasse, Wallace Woods, and Peaselburg neighborhoods, still owns two properties in the city. Fox was previously the program director for the Northern Kentucky Property Owners Association and is a member of Real Estate Investment Association on both sides of the river. The New Richmond, Ohio resident penned an op-ed which is published in full below:

 

This article is not intended to berate efforts to clean up Covington, but to ensure the reasonableness of any new ordinance, by improving the language to match its intent.

This seemingly well-intended ordinance, in a reasonable and revised final form and EVENLY ENFORCED, might help the City of Covington reduce the number of dilapidated properties, blight, and problem behaviors.  In its current form though, portions of the proposal still need major tweaking, as some provisions go far beyond what’s practical to even-handedly implement.  The current draft has certain components that allow involuntary invasion of personal living space, singles out rental property owners, and holds rental owners to higher standards than other owners.

A few revisions were already made based on input from many sources, but certain language remains unreasonably invasive, technically allowing the City to conduct internal inspections of private residential space, even for a single non-recurring trigger such as one broken window, missing gutter, long grass, roof damage, or an improper trash set-out.  The fairness and constitutionality are sorely lacking in this and some other areas of the ordinance.

“Landlords” (rental property owners) are easy targets for blame.  Despite huge sums of money invested in Covington real estate, many owners don’t live within the City limits of Covington, and therefore can’t vote on the officials who govern the City.  There’s a widespread prejudicial presumption that non-Covington owners typically behave as “absentees” due to the misbehaviors of a few.  And indeed some owners ARE “slumlords” who DO rent out crappy buildings, just as some tenants are obnoxious slobs, as are a number of owner-occupants.  But it’s the rental owners who typically make the news, reinforcing the stereotype of the greedy truant slumlord.

The fact is most rental property owners are NOT the primary cause of City blight, except perhaps by choosing the wrong people to rent their property.  Rental property owners are typically responsible rational people attempting to build a better life, and want the same environment as their tenants; a habitable area that’s safe, clean, and crime free. True slumlords who just don’t give a damn are thankfully in the minority.

Online ability to quickly and easily check civil backgrounds in Kentucky is not available yet, while counties in surrounding states have posted civil and criminal information online for many years.  This currently makes Kentucky a safe haven for unsavory elements from other areas that spotlight a derogatory history.  A separate and very helpful initiative, in collaboration between Mike Yeager (the new Community Services Manager) and involved rental property owners, is to compile and maintain a cumulative list of filed eviction complaints within Kenton and adjacent counties.  This will be available online and at no cost to anyone who bothers to check public records.  This single effort will be instrumental in making it far more difficult for loud hellions, trash mongers, drug dealers, and known deadbeats to just move two doors down after being evicted. Other helpful initiatives are to educate new rental property owners, with mentoring from responsible experienced ones.

Real estate owners logically want their investments to increase in value, and most owners typically don’t require onerous new laws to force safe and ethical operation. Unlike what’s so often depicted by some real estate investment gurus, leasing rental property is a difficult, time-consuming endeavor, and at times a very dirty job.  Investors often (sometimes unwittingly) are the first to buy into “war zones” and bring dilapidated buildings to habitable condition, enduring many challenges along the way, not the least of which is keeping properties orderly despite abuse by some tenants. Given these already daunting challenges, responsible owners should scrutinize the proposed requirements of any new City ordinances, to prevent bearing unintended consequences due the negligence of a few owners who don’t follow existing rules already governing rental property.

Primary issues that still need attention in the ordinance draft are:

1) The questionable constitutionality of entering and conducting internal inspections of private units, based on an extremely low threshold of external maintenance triggers, and without first providing owners an opportunity to correct.  Current language within the proposed ordinance allows the City to inspect ALL buildings owned by a cited owner, for one sporadic infraction.  If the intent, as clearly expressed by City leaders, is for the internal inspections to occur only after chronic and unabated blight notifications, that intent needs to be clearly reflected within the ordinance.  Currently it’s not there.

2) Holding rental property owners to higher standards than owner-occupants; for example the specific requirement for rental owners (even single family units), to build enclosures or vegetation screens to hide trash containers.  In some locations, the enclosure requirement just isn’t practical, and there’s already an ordinance requiring neatness and litter prevention.  If neatness is what’s intended, the ordinance shouldn’t specify details as to how that’s implemented, unless all properties are held to that same standard and it is evenly enforced.

3) Posting violation notices on buildings in full view of tenants (before hearings are concluded), thereby potentially alarming tenants and causing unwarranted vacancies.  This is not reasonable, and exposes the City to lawsuits.

4) ANY person is able to make a complaint about a rental dwelling UNIT (apartment) to “an employee of the City” (any employee?).  This also triggers internal inspection of a property without validation or first contacting the building owner regarding the complaint, opening the door to frivolous complaints from people other than building residents. To be reasonable, this provision (for internal inspections) should be limited to residents of the building. Further, tiffs between owners and nonpaying tenants are very common, so City intervention should only be done after proof that a rental resident provides legitimate evidence that they first contacted the building owner or his/her agent about the matter, and it was not resolved in a reasonable timeframe.

5) Holding building owners accountable and liable for the actions and misbehaviors of occupants, such as broken windows, tall grass, improper trash set outs, vicious animals, and other issues.  It seems more reasonable to first directly approach the perpetrators of unsavory behavior. I’m certain most owners would also prefer an information letter or e-mail regarding their tenants’ behaviors.

6)  The revised licensing renewal portion of the new ordinance takes effect in January 2013.  It seems more fitting and convenient to make that effective on tax day (April 15th), when most other income based documents and fees are due, and awareness would be more automatic.

This article is respectfully submitted by William D. Fox, and on behalf of many other Covington rental property owners.  With the recommended changes listed, it’s our opinion that the new ordinance would be more reasonable, less prone to legal contest when its provisions imposed, and require less “tweaking” in the future.  We encourage all rental property owners and tenants to read the ordinance draft, and attend the final reading on November 27 at 6:00 PM at City Hall on the first floor at 638 Madison Avenue, Covington, Kentucky to voice your opinions prior to the vote.