December 19, 2003

Enacting a rental code with the kind of 'teeth' that County Executive Tom Gordon and the Department of Land Use advocate would actually do serious harm to many of the people a code is intended to help, according to a lawyer who makes his living as a tenant advocate.

Chris White, of Community Legal Aid, told the Claymont Community Coalition that requiring landlords to take out, and pay for, a permit for each rental units would "trickle down" in the form of rent hikes which would put more than a third of all renters in the county "at risk of becoming homeless."

Citing Delaware Housing Authority data, he said that proportion of households spend more than 30% of their income to pay for rent and utilities -- a level considered to be the threshold of unaffordability. "It sounds great to impose costs on landlords, [but] the truth is they're not imposed on landlords. They're imposed on my people (clients)," he said.

George Haggerty, assistant general manager of the land use department, did not respond directly to that assertion, but said permitting provides an effective way to enforce property codes because it confronts violators who refuse to remedy conditions which don't measure up to minimum requirements with the possibility of losing the right to rent the property.

Requiring payment of a licensing fee, he said, is akin to charging developers, tradesmen and others who use department services fees to cover at least part of the cost of providing those services.

The proposed rental code ordinance now before County Council would require owners of rental properties to register each unit and to provide up-to-date information on how to contact a locally-based individual responsible for the properties. There would be no cost to register or periodically update information.

The Claymont Coalition meeting on Dec. 18 was the first public discussion of the issue since Council president Christopher Coons two evenings earlier introduced the ordinance drafted by a diverse taskforce which he convened over a span of 18 months. As previously reported by Delaforum, the land use department has drafted and circulated a different version.

Council could act on Coons's proposal as early as Jan. 13, but that seems unlikely because another Council member could introduce the competing ordinance and widespread interest the issue has sparked would seem to mitigate against quick action. About a quarter of all county residents are said to live in rental housing.

White, Haggerty and Fred Quercetti, owner of Naamans Apartments and president of the Delaware Apartment Association, pointedly praised each other and other taskforce participants at the coalition meeting. "We are not fundamentally that far apart," Haggerty said. Whether that signals the possibility of compromise is unclear.

Coons, who was not at the coalition meeting, has yielded on one relatively minor but nevertheless controversial point. The measure he introduced is labeled as a substitute for a proposed ordinance previously circulated and discussed in public, but not actually introduced into Council. The substitute eliminates a so-called 'sunset' provision which would automatically terminate the law if it is not specifically renewed after two years. In its place is a provision that would require the law to be reviewed at that point.

"Our job is to deal with substandard housing without shooting ourselves in the foot," said Quercetti, who also was a member of the Coons taskforce. "We have to make sure we don't chase investment capital away."

Unlike larger metropolitan areas, he said, the condition of housing in northern Delaware is dependent upon owners, many of whom are based out of state, investing in rehabilitating older buildings. Current interest in such investment would be stymied by precipitous action, he maintained. Since the market is relatively limited, that requires a measured approach, he said.

"I think a reasonable approach is the taskforce's proposal," he said. He called it "a consensus docment that has real hope [of] solving the problem" of substandard units.

Haggerty said the department favors "a more systematic approach" to inspections than would be mandated by the random system which Coons's ordinance would impose. The first two or three years after enactment of an ordinance should be spent concentrating on "addressing the more problematic units."

White said the pamphlet which landlords would have to provide to present and future tenants will go a long way in uncovering problems. "It's going to generate a lot of calls to [the] land use [department]," he said.

He denied that the document was subject to undue landlord influence. "I drafted it on my computer," he said, pointing out that it provides avenues to that tenants can follow to have problems rectified. It is based on his 13 years of professional experience as an advocate for tenants, who are mostly people with low incomes and lacking a good deal of sophistication.

What is not generally realized, he added, is that the code enforcers in the land use department already have the power to deal with bad situation. With 'probable cause', they can inspect any housing unit and penalize recalcitrant landlords.

A random inspection system supplementing inspections in response to complaints from tenants and neighboring residents would measure how extensive the substandard housing problem really is, he said.

2003. All rights reserved.

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