Monday, October 12, 2009

Landlord law needs to be strengthened, not softened

Posted By on Mon, Oct 12, 2009 at 12:27 PM

Remember the good ol' days, a year or two ago, when people would buy extra houses just so they could play landlord?

Take my suburban, middle class neighborhood in north west Charlotte: It has about 200 homes, all only five or six years old. Of those 200 homes, roughly a quarter of them are rental properties.

Let me tell you about just two of those rental properties, both a few doors down from my house. The owners of the homes have never, so far as the rest of the neighbors know, actually lived in Charlotte. One lives in Hawaii and the other in California. They pay a management company who-knows-how-much to make sure the lawn is cut, repairs are made and that a tenant always fills the space.

Sounds great, huh? Buy a house, sit back and let the money roll in. Sweet.

What the owners don't realize is the management company really doesn't do that great of a job taking care of the yard -- which looks like crap not only because it's not mowed regularly, but because the tenants park their cars on it. And, the people who live directly next door say the houses aren't all that well taken care of, either. No telling what the interior of the homes looks like.

Meh. The management company has to make a profit, too. It shouldn't be a huge surprise that they're cutting corners, this is America after all. No big deal, right? Wrong.

Our neighborhood, like many neighborhoods, has a homeowners association that makes rules and collects dues so that everyone who lives here can enjoy a nice, safe, well-kept place to live.

Not mowing your lawn? Against the rules. So is parking three cars on your lawn. But, being a jerk -- that's OK. The fact that their kids terrorize neighbors and the parents growl at everyone who waves at them is uncomfortable, but some people just don't want to get along. Can't do anything about that.

On the other side of the 'hood, however, there's a troubled young man who likes to do things like curse at neighbors walking their dogs, break into people's houses and, when he's feeling particularly frisky, steal cars. But, since he's a youth, he has yet to see the inside of a jail. Mom is admonished, the police give him a stern talking to and he's spent a little time in foster care.

Yeah, his family also rents from an absentee landlord.

Oh, and, good luck getting in touch with any of them. The impression the landlords leave with their houses' neighbors is that they could really care less about our community, so long as they're getting their monthly rent check.

The  bigger problem is that the landlords are leading by example. If they don't follow the rules, why should anyone else? In fact, there are people in the townhomes -- at the front of the 'hood -- who are two years behind in their monthly dues.

The dues are supposed to pay for water, trash pick-up, landscaping and maintenance on things like the retaining pond, the roads and the swimming pool. The dues also cover things like new roofs for the town homes and other types of structural maintenance. When homeowners don't pay everyone else has to pick up the slack, which ultimately means the neighborhood has to scale back its future plans for improvement and the entire community suffers.

Lawyers have sent threatening letters, but the rouge tenants continue to not pay -- or care. Of course, why should they? The other people don't. And, besides, what's the homeowner's association going to do? Replace the roof on three out of four town homes? Try to convince the garbage collectors to leave their trash on the street? Won't happen. Can't happen.

The homeowners association is now starting to throw around the f-word for the slack due-payers: Foreclosure. No neighborhood wants more foreclosures.

So, yeah, I take issue with the news that the city council is going to back down from their commitment to require all landlords to register with local officials so they can be in touch in the case of an emergency (like a fire or a major crime) or when their management company or tenants decide to shun the neighborhood and it's rules.

A while back, city leaders discussed creating a database of landlord contact information in an effort to cut down on crime. But, let's not forget, it's an election year and Republicans on the City Council and their lobbyists are shaking their fists at the idea.

The main argument: Such an ordinance would create too much bureaucracy. It would also mean an extra bill for the landlords, which, in turn, means extra revenue for the city.

The city's alternative solution? Just call the police. Because, hey, CMPD's not doing anything else -- right?

Maintaining a database is a helluva lot less expensive than stretching our cops thin and having them scurry hither and fro every time someone has a complaint about two-year-old delinquent dues, a bad seed or a yard that needs to be hayed.

From Charlotte.com:

A city analysis three years ago found that more than 41 percent of all city crime occurred in residential property, and 60 percent of those crimes took place in rental housing. Larger apartment complexes - with 30 or more apartments - accounted for more than one-third of violent crime.

The idea behind the ordinance is to let police quickly identify property owners, and then work with the landlords to clean up their properties. Problematic landlords may be required to meet with the police to discuss ways to reduce crime, then given 18 months to improve their rentals.

If the landlords don't respond to the city, they can be fined $50 a day for the first 30 days of nonresponse. The fine could be increased to $100 a day for the next 30 days, and then $500 a day after that.

The city said that landlords who are trying to improve their properties - but can't reduce crime - might not be penalized. The ultimate penalty, under the proposal, would be for the city to essentially seize the property, forbidding the current owner from receiving rent until the property is improved.

A plan discussed earlier this year would have required all rental property owners to register, and possibly pay a fee. But that broad program was criticized by some Republicans on the council, as well as the Real Estate & Building Coalition, who said it would create too much bureaucracy.

A compromise approved by the city's community safety committee only targets properties with the biggest crime problems.

Charlotte has 48,007 rental properties, and city officials estimate that 722 properties might be required to register if the more limited ordinance is adopted. The fee to register a rental property with one unit would be $335 a year, while a property with 30 or more units would be $1,300.

The registration fees would generate nearly $230,000 annually. The fees would pay for two new staff members.

The city modeled its rental registration ordinance on similar programs in Houston, Tempe, Ariz. and Minneapolis, which have similar requirements. Charlotte said those cities saw crime drop after registrations were enacted.

The Charlotte City Council will discuss the new ordinance at its meeting tonight.

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