News

November 21, 2003

Supporters of the proposed county rental code took their campaign to get it enacted to the public and received what appeared to be a favorable response from the civic organization in an area likely to be one of the most affected.

The only 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.

Beginning 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%.

County 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.

"The last 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.

"We came 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."

Coons, 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 county."

Noting 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.

As Delaforum previously reported, County Executive Tom Gordon has described the proposal as "a bill that has no teeth."

Charles 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 said 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.

Larry 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.

"You're not going to see your taxpayers' money wasted," he said.

A key 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.

It is 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.

Baker 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."

"Fines 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."

Baker 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.

Although 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 accepted.

Nagengast 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?"

State 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.

Baker 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.

Peuquet 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."

A couple 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.

The coalition did not take any kind of vote on the ordinance, but the general tone of the discussion was approving.

Coalition 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."

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