significant differences of viewpoints among attenders at a long
but restrained presentation and discussion at a Claymont
Community Coalition meeting on Nov. 20 was whether landlords
should be registered or licensed, and whether property
inspections, other than those in response to complaints from
tenants and other people, should be random or universal.
the public discussion before the coalition early in the
legislative process was appropriate. As many as half of the
people who live in Claymont are renters, compared to a
countywide average of about 25%.
Council president Christopher Coons described the proposed law,
which would apply to unincorporated areas of the county, as a
careful melding of diverse "and even hostile" interests.
attempt at [enacting] a rental code failed because it mobilized
owner and tenant groups to oppose it," he said. The present
proposal, on the other hand, emerged from a broad-based
taskforce. "We spent a year debating this issue," Coons said.
not only to a consensus, but to an elegant consensus," said
Steven Peuquet, of the University of Delaware's School of Urban
Affairs & Public Policy, who served on the taskforce. "It is a
fair proposal; it's unobtrusive; it's cost-effective; it
empowers tenants; it finds and penalizes the bad guys."
who has said he intends to introduce the proposed ordinance in
December, said the measure had to be carefully crafted. "If
we're going to impose costly regulation on businesses, we have
to prove it's necessary," he said. "If New Castle County
overdoes it, we're going to get [good] landlords fleeing our
that he has, in effect, a foot in both camps, having once worked
as a tenant-rights lawyer in Connecticut and presently owning
one rental property in Wilmington, Coons said he is anxious to
maintain the balance struck in the present draft. "I would hate
to see amendments designed to drive it apart," he said.
Delaforum previously reported, County Executive Tom Gordon has
described the proposal as "a bill that has no teeth."
Baker, who, as general manager of the Department of Land Use is
a member of the county administration, denied at the coalition
meeting that the executive branch of county government is
opposed to either the concept of having a rental code or the
proposal put forward by Coons and the taskforce.
he was the only member of the taskforce who did not sign off on
the final draft because he had, and still has, reservations
about how strong a weapon it provides for his department to
effectively enforce it.
Nagengast, of Shipley Associates, a public relations firm, who
was a member of the taskforce and who spoke on behalf of the
Delaware Apartment Association, said the proposed ordinance will
aid tenants by improving the overall quality of the area's
rental housing stock, help the county get a handle on who own
the properties, and crack down on the "small number of
irresponsible landlords" in the county.
not going to see your taxpayers' money wasted," he said.
component of the law would be the dissemination of information
to tenants in a brochure explaining their rights and how to go
about exercising them. The apartment association, which
Nagengast said represents owners of 20,000 of the estimated
35,000 rental units in the county, has agreed to finance
publication of the brochure.
expected that informed tenants will be more apt to register
complaints if requests to their landlords to remedy problems go
unheeded. Many people familiar with conditions in low-cost
housing contend, however, that eviction threats are common
deterrents to tenants contacting authorities.
said the requirement in the proposed ordinance that all rental
properties be registered could be used to strengthen the land
use department's hand in enforcing the law by giving it
authority "to revoke the right to have a rental unit."
are not a good method for us to enforce property codes," he
said. "Property rights are a strong issue in the United States
in general and in Delaware in particular."
indicated that fining violators has proven to be little more
than a proverbial slap on the wrist because of difficulty
actually collecting the fines. Of about $10,000 worth of fines
levied in justice-of-the-peace court last year, the county
netted $270, he said. The proposed ordinance designates fines,
including those imposed for not registering properties or
failure to distribute the brochure, as the way to finance the
cost of administering the rental code.
Baker did not use the term 'license', Claymont resident Bob
Donnelly equated the idea to requiring a license to operate a
motor vehicle -- a practice, he noted, that is commonly
replied that that comparison was not valid. Driver license fees
in Delaware, he said, have remained unchanged for at least 30
years, because raising them would be politically unacceptable,
while license fees imposed on a relatively small segment of the
community tend to escalate. "Thirty dollars now becomes $50 next
year and $100 after that," he said. "Why should we
(compliant landlords) pay to finance this system?"
representative David Ennis suggested that might be compromised
by charging a registration or licensing fee, but capping it in
the law and providing for discounts for members of the apartment
association, which would require adherence to voluntary
standards as a condition for membership.
also disputed the wisdom of the proposed ordinance's requiring
random inspection of rental properties -- at least 5% of them
each year -- when an expected increase in complaints requiring
inspections will significantly increase code enforcement
officers' workload. "We think we may get 20% or 25% [more]
complaints, but it may be 35% or 50%. We have no way of
telling," he said.
said that random inspections are both a good way to measure how
extensive the problem of substandard housing is and an effective
deterrent to unwanted landlord practices. "It places all
landlords under the threat of being inspected," he said, adding
that, like the threat of having to undergo an income tax audit,
"it modifies behavior at least a little bit."
of the meeting attenders raised the point of tenants'
responsibility for the upkeep of the properties where they live.
That is not addressed in the proposed ordinance.
coalition did not take any kind of vote on the ordinance, but
the general tone of the discussion was approving.
president George Lossť said he still has some concerns about the
proposed ordinance but, as a member of the taskforce, voted to
approve the draft. "We had reached a point that [it] would be
acceptable as a start/" He said the advisory board the ordinance
would create to monitor effectiveness of the law "would have to
continually work to improve this code."