June 21, 2005

Seventeen months after County Council rejected a proposed rental code for residential properties in unincorporated areas, a virtually identical code is expected to easily win approval. Key difference this time around is that its former sponsor is now county executive.

Eleven of Council's 13 members -- seven of whom weren't in office when a proposed ordinance establishing a code was shot down by a four-to-three vote in January, 2004 -- asked a few questions but voiced no objections during a presentation about the fairly complex proposed ordinance's provisions on Jun. 20 at an executive committee meeting.

Members of the taskforce which County Executive Christopher Coons originally convened to draft

the legislation when he was president of County Council met privately to consider possible changes in provisions of the revived measure and decided not to make any, the committee was told.

Robert Weiner, primary sponsor of the ordinance now before Council, was not present at the committee meeting, but recently told a civic group that he intends to bring it up for a vote at Council's Jun. 28 session.

Only he and William Tansey voted affirmatively with Coons last year. No one has any doubt that the political ramifications of their support had more to do with the measure's defeat then than its contents.

Coons, now as well as then, regards enactment of a  rental code as essential to deal with what he, and others, perceive to be a significant problem of substandard housing for low-income households.

Taskforce members acknowledge that the extent of the problem is unknown. "It's very hard to get an accurate measure of the problem,"

At a glace

Key provisions of the proposed rental code legislation:

All rental units must be registered. Failure to register will result in a fine.

Landlords must distribute a 'tenants' rights' brochure. Failure to do so will result in a fine.

The Department of Land Use will continue to respond to complaints about the condition of rental properties.

At least 5% of the registered units are to be inspected at random each year.

An advisory committee will monitor implementation of the law.

County Council must review the ordinance two years after enactment to determine if changes are needed.

Stephen Peuquet, of the Center for Community Research and Service at the University of Delaware, told the executive committee. By the time that a mandatory Council review of how the code is working rolls around two years after it goes into effect, "we'll know how serious a problem we do, or do not, have," he added.

The code will require every owner of rental property to register with the Department or Land Use. That requirement covers any property -- not just apartments -- for rent and includes, for instance, incidental rental of a house from which the owner will be temporarily absent. Separate registration would be required for each rental unit.

Random inspections in addition to those conducted in response to complaints will produce data on the number, nature and severity of violations of the newly updated county property code.

The number of inspections and how to go about deciding which properties to inspect was cited last year by the Gordon administration as the principal flaw in the proposed ordinance. It was argued that code enforcers would be overwhelmed by a requirement that 5% of the properties chosen at random be inspected each year.

The consensus estimate is that there are about 36,000 rental units in the county outside of Newark and Wilmington, but no one knows for sure. The proposed legislation calls for the land use department to make a best-efforts attempt to reach the 5% standard.

Land use general manager Charles Baker, who last year questioned whether his department would have sufficient resources to do the job, indicated to the executive committee that he now has a higher degree of confidence about that.

Inclusion of $200,000 in the fiscal 2006 budget will permit hiring of two additional employees, which he said will likely be enough to handle most of the administrative work of registering properties in the first year. "Next year we will be looking [for] more code-enforcement officers. I can't tell now how many more we'll need," he said.

Two officers, he explained, would be able to accomplish, on average, about 1,800 inspections over the course of the year. That would be the 5% random inspections if the estimate of the total number of units is accurate. However, it is expected that enactment of the code will generate a significant increase in the number of complaints from tenants and others. The department currently responds to complaints, but does not differentiate between rental and other properties in that regard.

Code enforcement manager James Edwards said that the proposed rental code provides "a lesser standard" for inspectors to gain access to a property where owners refuse to voluntarily admit them. In those instances now -- and with complaint-driven inspections under the proposed code -- it is necessary to have 'probable cause' to obtain warrants, he said.

Department policy now is to give 48 hours advance notice before inspecting. That would be required by the proposed ordinance.

Edwards told Karen Venezky that random inspection would not deal with what she raised as a serious and growing concern -- the excessive number of people living in some units. "We have rental houses with 13 and 14 people in them. ... Forty-eight hours notice gives them time to go live with their boyfriend or girlfriend and those who are left have a number of reasons why they are there but [say they] don't live there," she said.

Peuquet said the proposed ordinance provides for "imposing a stringent enough fine" to secure compliance with both its registration provision and adherence to the property code. At the same time, "it doesn't impose a burden on tenants or owners," he said.  "We think we're going to get a high level of compliance."

As it is now, Baker said, "95% of the properties we go into come into compliance" without the need to impose fines or pursue further legal action.

Christopher White, assistant director of Community Legal Aid and a lawyer who represents tenants, said the proposed code is a compromise between competing interests. "It not only supports the rights of tenants, but also [supports] the industry by getting the bad guys out of there," he said.


2005. All rights reserved.

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