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Rental Inspection Program Gets Mixed Reaction

Though it was just a first reading and no vote was taken on the proposed rental inspection program at Tuesday night's Covington City Commission meeting, there were plenty of comments for and against it. Several rental property owners spoke against the plans while some residents cited it as a needed tool to combat blight and troubled properties.

Covington's community services manager, Mike Yeager, led a presentation on the rental inspection program that stated the City has identified the roadblocks and impediments that had previously made it difficult to keep up with blight. With the dramatic change to the city's code enforcement department which saw its director and multiple employees eliminated in favor of a mostly part-time department, Yeager highlighted some of the shifts the city has made to keep up with the efforts: blighted buildings are slated to be torn down, the part-time code enforcement officers will spend all of their time on the streets, a criminal activity (on rental property) ordinance is in place, and the city is investigating "land banking" which is the process of purchasing land and holding on to it until the time is right for development.

Another piece of the code enforcement puzzle is the rental inspection program. "It's not going to fix all the problems on its own," Yeager said, "but if used in conjunction with other initiatives it could go a long way." Covington used Newport's plan as a template after meeting with what Yeager called stakeholders and incorporating their comments and suggestions into the program. Differences with Newport's plan includes no fee for obtaining a rental license and a number of triggers, such as long grass and broken windows, that could result in an inspection. It would cost property owners $30 for an inspection while no owner will be fined more than $500 during one calendar year. If problems persist, a tenant would have sixty days to vacate the premises and/or a rental license could be revoked.

Members of the Greater Cincinnati & Northern Kentucky Apartment Association and the Real Estate Investment Association, some of whom served on a task force in 2009 to study a rental inspection program, were not entirely thrilled with the plan. Bill Fox of New Richmond, Ohio, who served on the task force, said that there are some impractical aspects of it. "It doesn't seem fair to paint all landlords with the same brush," he said.

"I'm disappointed in the lack of incorporations of recommendations of the task force," said Jerry Fink of Fairfield. Fink added that he would like to see work done on the language of the "triggers" . "This is discriminatory because it goes after property owners who happen to have rentals. We haven't addressed the real issues of personal responsibility of landlords and tenants." Fink's next statement triggered a short but harsh back and forth between him and City Commissioner Steve Frank.

"You need us," Fink said. "Covington is a high rental city and it always will be. We take the risk to go out and buy properties. They are usually ugly and we put our time and effort into them. If it gets too onerous we will not do business in this city."

"Don't threaten us. Take another line of argument," Frank sniped. 

Other speakers were more supportive of the measure. "This gives residents and neighborhoods a tool to make improvements," said Jennifer Rawers of Helentown who also owns a rental property. She said there are two benefits that are obvious, one for the police and another that allows code enforcement officers to enter properties. Rawers cited a house near her neighborhood in which a man was found dismembered inside a troubled property as reason to support the measure.

Terry Simpson, Susan Barnett, and Bill Wells of the Covington Neighborhood Collaborative also spoke in favor of it. However, the back and forth continued.

"These triggers are caused by tenants," said Michelle Clay, a property owner from Florence. "Why is there a special ordinance just for landlords?"

"Have all the landlords left Newport?," asked City Commissioner Steve Casper. "We have to start somewhere. I'm fearful we'll never get one if we don't start." Yeager said that one benefit in Newport since the implementation of a rental inspection program is that that city has seen fewer building fires.

"It's about the safety of the people that live in this city," said City Manager Larry Klein. "Government regulates business and (real estate) is a business. It attempts to hold owners accountable to make sure the properties are safe."