City hopes to revive home rental inspections


By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Elizabeth City officials plan to ask state lawmakers again to allow the city to periodically inspect rental properties to make sure they're habitable.

The city plans to seek exemptions to state laws that would allow it to resume its rental inspection program, City Manager Rich Olson reported during last week's council retreat. The city started the program in 2005 to combat blight and bad living conditions, but lawmakers adopted legislation that effectively eliminated the program in 2016. The legislation restricts periodic inspections to problem properties in a small, defined area.

Working with the NC League of Municipalities, the lobbying group that represents the city before the Legislature, Olson recommended the city ask lawmakers to exempt smaller cities from the restrictions on inspection programs. Olson suggested exempting cities under 25,000 in population, noting Elizabeth City was the only such city to have a rental inspection program.

Councilor Tony Stimatz, an outspoken proponent of the program, said large cities' inspection programs are what drew the ire of lawmakers. State Rep. William Brawley, R-Mecklenburg, was a key opponent of the programs, he said.

“Brawley's problem was, he's in Charlotte, … millionaires had mansions, and the (Charlotte) ordinance required them to have these big signs on the inside of the front door that said, ‘this is a rental property,’” Stimatz said. “They had these silly rules about them, OK, and he was so incensed he wanted to kill everybody's program.”

Stimatz said he told Brawley Elizabeth City’s program sought to ensure the city's rental properties — which comprise almost two-thirds of the city's housing stock – were livable. Though state law still allows tenants to request rental inspections, councilors have previously said renters fear reprisal from landlords if they report problems with their homes.

Stimatz also suggested the city offer concessions to Brawley and other lawmakers skeptical of rental inspection programs. For example, large apartment complexes, which Stimatz said rarely have issues, could be exempted from the program.

Councilor Johnnie Walton voiced concerns about the rental inspections program, however. Its fees are costs that are passed down to tenants, he said.

Noting the city's many vacant properties and loss of population, Walton also warned against burdening landlords. Though the city is seeing new rental development, Walton said “people in my culture” are struggling to find housing. He said the rental inspections program served its purpose and is no longer needed.

Other councilors and Mayor Joe Peel appear to still support the program, however. Peel said the program helps uncover homes without floors and that are otherwise in bad shape. The program can keep homes from sinking into such disrepair the city has to pay to demolish them, he said.

Olson said he planned to meet with lawmakers to ask they take up the legislation. He also said the city could, in lieu of a population-based exemption, simply ask for a local bill that exempts Elizabeth City by name from the current law. Such a bill would be sponsored by the area's lawmakers, either Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, or Reps. Howard Hunter III, D-Hertford, or Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan.

Olson advised against that approach, however. He said that other lawmakers will fear that, if one city gets an exemption, many more will request the same.