Covington, Kentucky

Property Owner Blasts New Rental Inspection Program

This is a guest editorial written by Bill Fox, an Ohio resident who owns property in Covington. The opinions expressed in this piece are not necessarily those of The River City News.

 

Written by William D. Fox

Apparent pressure from neighborhood groups to “do something” caused the outgoing Covington City Commission to do just that last Tuesday, “something”.  Despite clearly highlighting its unconstitutionality, the City Commission adopted a flagrantly invasive ordinance, prejudicially aimed at rental property owners.  While the overall stated spirit of the ordinance is honorable (to clean up Covington), the specific language tramples the rights of privacy guaranteed by the fourth amendment of the US Constitution, which requires due process for invasion of private space.

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

Although I fervently agree with the spirit and intent of the much needed improvements to Covington. I equally abhor the blatant disregard for personal rights.  This pre-ordained ordinance was hurriedly voted on and adopted by the outgoing commission before too much public awareness could occur, and despite clearly highlighted ordinance shortcomings and specific suggestions for more reasonable language.

Now, to be clear about my point, I am not advocating that we condone slovenliness but that we enforce laws evenly and invade private space only when warranted.

Under the new ordinance two glaring elements are particularly bothersome:

1) City inspectors may now theoretically enter private residences against the will of the owners and residents if they see any one of six non-threatening but specific “triggers”:  tall grass, a messy trash set out, a crumbling wall, a broken window, roof damage, or a missing gutter (are gutters even required?)  None of the inspection triggers are truly high-risk safety, health, or criminal issues which have been some of the declared reasons for justifying such inspection. Unless severe or recurring, none of the listed triggers truly warrant invasive entry. Although none of the named triggers are desirable, and I am not in favor of ignoring maintenance, sometimes these things occur sporadically through no fault of the property owner and if abated quickly, they just do not warrant invasion of the premises.

2) The ordinance targets a certain group and will not be enforced evenly on all citizens. Rental property owners, even single family units, now have more stringent requirements. For example, the trash enclosure requirement.  This creates a valid problem regarding enforceability.  Tall grass is tall grass, litter is litter, and building blight is ugly, regardless of who owns it.  The same applies to crime, nuisance behavior, and vicious animals.

One comment made during the vote was that “perfection is the antithesis of progress”.  Understanding the general wisdom of that adage (seeking absolute perfection can paralyze any efforts), no one is asking for perfection:  just reason, constitutionally legal language, and blind treatment, especially if the language defines a new “law”.  There’s no need to rush into passing a poorly-worded ordinance that opens the door for uneven treatment of citizens.  It’s important to spend the time required to get that right.

What happened Tuesday evening is quite discouraging.  Emotion, pent up pressure, and perhaps other agendas usurped logic and reason.  So now all rental owners bear the additional burden of that blunder.  Well-thought-out ordinances are already on the books, which already deal with most of the issues covered in this ridiculous ordinance that passed last Tuesday.  The real problem, as with many laws, is that the reasonable ones are not consistently enforced.

A stated political cloak for the new ordinance is “to ensure to the health and safety of community citizens”.

If community leaders are truly concerned about health and safety issues, I suggest we first focus on other more appropriate triggers and serious issues facing the City, such as:

  • Recurring and serious unabated code violations.
  • Drug trafficking and habitual use
  • Vicious animals
  • Illegal residents
  • Personal property thefts
  • Car and residence break-ins
  • Copper thievery
  • Gang activity and chronic nuisances
  • Recurring violence and disorders at the same residence
  • How to prevent bedbugs from spreading

As the City did a few years back with trash receptacles, perhaps it should fund a smoke and CO detector distribution program for all Covington residents, possibly via property taxes where all property owners may pick up an appropriate number of the latest safety devices every few years, for their homes and rental units, along with installation instructions or even volunteers to assist with installing them.

I do applaud an action commitment from the new Community Services Manager Mike Yeager, an honorable man, per the suggestion of rental property owners: compiling and making available a cumulative list of publicly-filed eviction complaints, to be available online.  Currently in Kentucky, civil and criminal records are not easily accessible online, as in most other states, making Covington a safe haven for undesirables.  Derogatory Kentucky histories are not centrally or permanently published via internet, and therefore not readily available to credit reporting agencies without a lot of effort.  At least the City will be the first in the state to move in a positive direction in this area. This will help keep the evicted or convicted from settling in the City, and/or just moving a few doors down.

My prediction relative to the adopted ordinance:  Unless reworded to more reasonable language, the new ordinance will be an ineffective manuscript that resides in the legal archives.  It will be difficult for the new part-time code enforcement officers to legally enforce. The part timers replace an experienced street-smart staff, including Code Enforcement Director Keith Bales, recently honored by Latonia as one of the City’s most proactive citizens.  This is the kind of person the City discards?  Again, where is the logic?

Relative to entering private spaces, even the police must follow specific protocol, armed with relevant probable cause to abate serious criminal activity.  It seems quite unreasonable to now have such a low threshold as tall grass, missing shingles, or a broken window to justify entry into private living spaces of buildings, whether or not the space is rented is owner-occupied.

On the flip side though, arrests for serious crime should be easier,  at least for the criminals who forget to cut their grass or don’t bother to lid their trash cans. 

William D. Fox