December 23, 2003

One of the leading advocates of the rental code pending before New Castle County Council suggested that it be enacted without its controversial inspections component as a way to "get something on the books" quickly.

"What tenants need now is registration [of landlords]; the tenants' guide, which is a real cheap way to enforce the code; and the [Rental Housing] Advisory Committee," said Christopher White, deputy director of Community Legal Aid Society.

The surprise proposal came near the end of a 90-minute informational session arranged by Council president Christopher Coons on Dec. 22 at which Coons indicated that he will press for passage of the

measure when Council next meets on Jan. 13.

Coons appeared to reject White's suggestion, responding after it was made that it would "move us back six months" and adding, "We want to go forward, not backward." The measure, which Coons is sponsoring, was drafted over a period of 18 months by a taskforce he convened.

Another member of that panel, Lee Hoffman, of the Milltown-Limestone Civic Alliance, urged quick passage. "We don't want to [have] another two years of deliberation on which [version of an] ordinance is best," he said.

As Delaforum previously reported, the county Department of Land Use has drafted a version

Lawyers Christopher White and Michael Morton, who said they seldom find themselves on the same side of an issue, jointly narrate a presentation supporting enactment of a county rental code.

which differs from Coons's primarily in elimination of a provision for random inspection of rental units and requiring a license, at a cost to landlords of $25 per unit, instead of simple registration, which would not require payment of a fee. That approach dovetails with the position County Executive Tom Gordon has taken on the issue.

Charles Baker, general manager of the department, reiterated support of what he called a more manageable inspection system and licensing as a tool to assist in what he said would more effective enforcement of the ordinance.

At this point, however, there are not competing ordinances before Council. Councilwoman Karen Venezky, who is considered by some people close to the situation as the Council member most likely to sponsor the Land Use-Gordon version, flatly denied after the session that she is even considering doing so. "No one has said anything to me about it and I don't plan to [do it]." she told Delaforum.

None of the other Council members present at the session clearly signaled how they stand on the issue. William Tansey came closest to doing so when he remarked that licensing landlords "would put teeth into [the ordinance]." Gordon previously used that term in an interview Delaforum and it has become something of a pivot around which differences between his views and Coons's have revolved.

While stopping short of endorsing Gordon's and Baker's views on that issue, Tansey said is generally known that "large corporations look upon fines as a cost of doing business."

Robert Woods asked rhetorically whether stepped-up enforcement of property codes as the result of a rental law "will eventually deplete the housing [available to] low-income people."

Provision in the proposed ordinance for an advisory committee was viewed by several speakers as an avenue for improving the law and adjusting it to conditions that it uncovers. Coons said the committee, which is designed to mirror the diversity of the taskforce, will be expected to be in continual touch with the situation and Council will be able to act when the ordinance comes up for a mandated review after two years.

As previously reported, Coons agreed to drop an original provision that would have resulted in the law's expiring if not specifically renewed on the second anniversary of its going into effect in favor of requiring Council to take a second look at it.

In what amounted to a dramatization of the melding of disparate interests on the taskforce, tenant advocate White and Michael Morton, a lawyer who represents the Delaware Apartment Association, a property owners' organization, alternated in narrating a Power Point presentation supporting Coons's ordinance. That came across as something close to the style of a classical Greek chorus.

Referring to the taskforce, White said the group started out antagonistically, but "we learned to hold hands."

Morton described the proposal which emerged as "strong, targeted, ultimately very cost-effective and commensurately fair."

Even if White's later suggestion were accepted, that would not eliminate inspections of rental properties. Code enforcement officers would respond, as they do now, to complaints from tenants and others. Distribution of the tenants' guide is expected to spark an increase in the number of such complaints.

Baker said there is no telling how great the increase would be. If complaints came from only 5% of the county's estimated 35,000 units -- which include both apartments and houses -- the number would increase from 500 annually to around 1,750. A handout he distributed gave alternate scenarios totaling up to 7,000. "It could be a scary number," Baker said.

The county has 12 code enforcement officers who last year handled a total of 6,600 complaints of all kinds. The taskforce has agreed to delay implementation of its proposed random-inspection system for a year to allow time to define the increased workload.

Coons said he believes the fear of an onslaught of complaints may be exaggerated. "In months of meetings we didn't see evidence; there was no crisis [of substandard housing] identified," he said.

The land use department has estimated the cost of implementing its version of the ordinance at $837,169 in the fiscal year beginning July l, increasing to $897,716 in fiscal 2007. Eight new inspectors would be hired. Coons's version, the department said, will cost $958,844 next year, plus $47,230 in extra start-up costs, rising to $1,027,678 in two years. It would required hiring 10 new inspectors.

Coons also disputed those figures and said he will rely on Council's finance committee to come up with the fiscal-impact note that such legislation requires.

The sharpest exchange of the session came when Morton accused the land use department of changing its position on the taskforce's proposals. "They signed off on this., It was only later that they came back and said, 'We've changed our mind.'," he said.

Baker denied that. "It was not my understanding [that] we had an agreement. The first time I saw the [pending] draft, we were raising concerns," he said.

Fred Quercetti, president of the Delaware Apartment Association, cautioned against driving large banks and insurance companies, which finance mortgages and thus supply capital to build, purchase and renovate rental properties. Rather than cope with the prospect of an applicant's operating license being suspended or revoked, "they will just walk away from any deals," he said. "Lenders don't want anything to get between them and their equity," he said. Northern Delaware is a small enough market

Moreover, he added, those firms require that rental units be kept up to all local building and property codes and employ their own inspection procedures to assure that. "A lender's not going to give you $4 million or $5 million without inspections," he said.

Tina Riley, of the Delaware Housing Coalition, said licensing would have relatively greater impact on tenants than on the landlords it is intended to police. "Tenants [could] be pushed out of a unit in compliance with codes for [the owner's] not registering," she said. Not taking out a license would be "an easy way to get rid of tenants."

White agreed, noting that, despite laws forbidding reprisals, eviction remains a powerful deterrent to tenants filing complaints. "A lot of slumlords say any sign of cooperation from the tenant will end up with the landlord showing the tenant the door," he said.

"Being a landlord is not a hobby. You're supplying a basic need," he said. "If they're not providing a decent place to live, they should not be landlords.

2003. All rights reserved.

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