March 21, 2003

Even as a committee convened by County Council president Christopher Coons is putting the finishing touches on a draft ordinance, there are indications that the proposed rental code may be heading into a political maelstrom.

County Executive Tom Gordon told a recent meeting of umbrella civic organization officers that he will veto any measure which imposes a significant burden on the county code enforcement system without providing a source of revenue to pay for the additional costs.

George Lossť, president of the Claymont Community Coalition, raised the question of financing at a meeting of the committee on Mar. 20 as the group reviewed a working draft of possible legislation. It would require all owners of rental residential property to register, but has dropped the idea of charging a registration fee, which had been included in an earlier draft. It does provide fines for violations of safety and health standards, with a steep escalation for repeat offenders.

"Does that mean that inspectors are going out there to find violations [in order] to finance the program?" Lossť asked.

Coons replied that the basic purpose of the inspections provided for in the proposed law is "to generate compliance, not raise revenue."

"If something is important, it's worth doing even though it might not fully pay for itself," he added. "If we agree we need [better] enforcement, we're going to have to be willing to pay for it."

"Let's make sure we come up with something we can enforce," said Charles Baker, general manager of the county Department of Land Use.

The law would apply to unincorporated areas of New Castle County. The cities of Wilmington and Newark have rental codes.

At this point, no one knows how many rentals units there are in the county. The Delaware Apartment Association counts 35,000 to 36,000 in identifiable apartment buildings and complexes. It is believed there could be many more in subdivided houses and dwellings being rented on a temporary basis.

The proposed ordinance has three components:

h Mandatory registration, which would provide an official data bank to include the identities of owners and, whenever an owner is not a local resident, the name of a contact person who would be available at any time to respond in the event of an emergency;

h Tenant education built around a guide to tenants' rights that landlords would be required to distribute to anyone with whom they established a 'rental relationship', whether by executing a formal lease or by a personal agreement; and

h Property inspections conducted whenever there is a complaint and on a random basis without complaints with their frequency determined by owners' violations and complaint histories.

Discussion at the meetings centered on how such an ordinance would work in actual practice.

Steven Peuquet, of the University of Delaware, said that registration would not prove onerous. It could be done en bloc and annual renewals would be simply a matter of reporting changes that have occurred. Not charging a registration fee but levying fines against anyone who doesn't register will have the effect of encouraging compliance by owners of a small number of units.

The obvious problem of finding those who do not register and therefore are unknown is at least partly addressed by following up on complaints.

"We have many good landlords in New Castle County. They shouldn't be penalized for the bad ones. The emphasis should be placed on the landlords who are not good landlords," Peuquet said.

Michael Morton, general counsel for the Apartment Owners Association, said the purpose of the educational guide is to assure that tenants, and particularly less-sophisticated tenants, understand what they are entitled to receive in the way of safe and healthful living conditions and to advise them of whom to contact in the event of problems.

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