November 18, 2003

County Council president Christopher Coons said he will introduce and push for enactment of a rental code for unincorporated areas of the county despite strong opposition from County Executive Tom Gordon to a proposal that a taskforce Coons convened has drafted.

"A lot of folks have put in a lot of time and effort into it," Coons told a meeting of Council's executive committee on Nov. 17.

After 18 months of discussion, a diverse panel approved draft legislation on Nov. 5 at what was intended to be its final meeting, he said. "Everyone but members of the [Gordon] administration voted unanimously in favor of this draft," he said.

Charles Baker, general manager of the Department of Land Use and two of his staff, as well as a county police community-liaison officer, attended the taskforce meeting. "I am a member of the executive branch [of county government], but I was there [representing] the department with responsibility for enforcement," he said.

In response to a Delaforum inquiry, Gordon himself declared unqualified opposition to the approach Coons and the taskforce have taken.

"It's a bill that has no teeth," he said. If enacted, "people will have the impression we have a rental code, but we won't."

Such codes, which are common in urban jurisdictions around the nation, are intended mainly as a lever to improve the overall quality of rental properties and combat substandard conditions in apartment units occupied by low-income people. Wilmington and Newark have such codes.

Coons's draft would require:

Registration of all rental properties and designation of a local agent for those owned by people living or companies based outside of the county;

Random inspection by code enforcement officers of a portion of the properties in addition to the present practice of the officers responding to tenant complaints;

Distribution by landlords every time a 'rental relationship' changes of a tenants'-rights pamphlet, which includes information on where to go to get help to remedy common problems.

Throughout the drafting process, Coons and members of the taskforce have maintained that a considerable majority of rental properties in the county are up to code and that the proposed law is intended to crack down on the others.

It is estimated that there are 35,000 rental properties in the county. The preamble of the draft legislation said that a quarter of the county's population lives in rented units.

Gordon said he believes "our rental stock is really bad." During the past 10 years or so, conditions have gotten considerably worse in substandard units and the number of such units has increased, he said, adding that the proposed legislation "doesn't get to the issue."

Nub of the dispute between Gordon and Coons appears to be over the matter of how often a given unit will be inspected and how many units would be inspected in a given year.

The draft legislation calls on the land use department to "use its best efforts to inspect 5% or more of the registered rental apartment units" each year. That is in addition to responding to complaints. There would be 48 hours advance notice given before an inspection, which would target violations of the county's property-maintenance, building and development codes.

Penalties presently provided for in those codes would be assessed for violations, but the proposed ordinance would continue to allow discretionary waiving of penalties for timely correction of violations. That is now a common practice. There would also be fines, and possible jail terms, for failure to register a property or distribute the rights pamphlet.

Gordon said a rental code would not be effective unless all properties are inspected as frequently as annually. In previous discussion, members of the taskforce have maintained that would be prohibitively expensive to do and a practical impossibility. Gordon disputed that.

The executive attributed the random approach to inspection and what he described as a less-than-strong emphasis on enforcement in the draft legislation to the influence of the Delaware Apartment Association in the drafting process. That association was represented on the taskforce, as were tenants'-rights advocates, civic organizations and housing agencies.

"They (the apartment trade group) are supporting this because they got pretty much what they wanted [in the way of] a weak law," Gordon said.

"This is not legislation crafted to benefit any special interests. This is legislation that will assist residents of rental properties in ensuring that their housing meets all applicable standards," Fred Quercetti, president of the association, replied in a statement. "Apartment owners and residents, homeowners and businessmen, housing experts and leaders of numerous organizations support this rental code legislation because it meets the needs of New Castle County. It is disappointing to us that this well-crafted ordinance does mot meet the needs of the county executive."

The cost of inspections, whatever their scope, is also an issue. The draft legislation refers to using fines collected for violations to help finance the additional code-enforcement load. There would be no charge for registering rental properties or updating registrations as necessary on an annual basis.

"Fines don't pay [enough] for anything," Gordon said. He reportedly favors imposing most of the burden of financing whatever inspection system is used on owners of rental properties. However, he stopped short of specifically advocating that in his telephone interview with Delaforum.

It was not clear whether Gordon has or is in the process of preparing alternative legislation. In the interview, he referred to the random approach as "different from what they do in the rest of the country" and indicated that he would favor using one or more codes from other jurisdictions as models for a New Castle County code.

Although there appears at the present stage to be a battle shaping up between the executive and Council president, who has said he is interested in succeeding Gordon, who is ineligible to seek re-election in 2004, both men said they don't want to see that happen.

"I would be very disappointed if we had two competing ordinances," Coons said. Gordon declared, "I don't want this to be a political issue."

Coons, who has indicated he will introduce the proposed ordinance as soon as Council's Dec. 2 meeting, asked his colleagues at the executive committee meeting if they wanted to sign on as co-sponsors. He had not immediate takers.

Coons also offered to hold an open-to-the-public 'workshop' session in which Council members and members of the taskforce could participate before it is introduced. It also would be discussed in open session by Council's land use committee before coming to a vote at a subsequent Council session.

2003. All rights reserved.

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