Wednesday, December 22, 2004

RUCO: Read the Fine Print

Greensboro city government wonks will remember that, about a year ago, the City Council adopted an ordinance that was advertised as a cure for most of Greensboro's substandard housing ills.

It is called RUCO -- the Rental Unit Certificate of Occupancy ordinance. Briefly stated, the ordinance says that a rental property must meet the minimum housing code before it can receive a Certificate of Occupancy; otherwise, people aren't allowed to live in it, and the owner has to fix it or face some serious fines.

A lot of people worked hard to get this ordinance passed, because it faced stiff oposition from TREBIC -- the Triad area Real Estate and Builders' Coalition. The Greensboro Neighborhood Congress put a big effort into this, of which I was proud to be a part.

We were told that the implementation date of the ordinance was January, 2004, and some of us have been really interested in finding out how well the ordinance would work. Especially those of us who live close to some pretty nasty rental properties.

But guess what? The real implementation date of the ordinance is July 2007. Nobody breathed a word of this during the public hearing, but here's what's in the ordinance:

The owner shall have an initial period of three and one-half (3 1/2) years from the date of implementation of this section, (January 1, 2004), to bring the rental unit into compliance with this chapter. (Read the whole thing -- section 11.40.)
Would I be cynical to detect the hand of TREBIC in this little blob of verbiage, lurking unobtrusively in the middle of the ordinance?

Would I be even more cynical to fear that, after 3 1/2 years, when essentially nothing has changed, because the ordinance has not been enforced, TREBIC will go to the Council and say, "See -- RUCO didn't work. Repeal it!"

Mark your calendars for Spring, 2007, and we'll see what happens. Meanwhile, be prepared to see a lot of cruddy housing not being maintained.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

David,

I appreciate your hard work and the good intentions of this ordinance. I'm not completely up to speed on how it is currently being implemented, but the problem with your generally-correct assesment that a unit "must receive a certificate of occupancy before people can live in it" is that there are no provisions for units that are currently occupied.

By imposing a deadline, the ordinance puts inspectors in the position of having to inspect occupied units. The problem with that is that unless there is a reason to beleive a unit is not up to code, broad inspections of occupied units, even if part of a regulatory scheme, have been ruled unConstitutional.

Under the law, an inspector cannot demand entry to an apartment without probable cause. A landlord cannot act as a tenant's surrogate in granting access to an inspector, and the tenant must give his explicit consent for entry by an inspector to be legal (baring reasonable suspicion of a code violation.)

I'd be interested to hear what the current approach is in obtaining tenant permission. Last I heard, there was a plan to send out letters to tenants TELLING renters when an inspector would be coming by. I don't know if this is what's being done, but as I've noted, any entry without the tenant's expressed permission is illegal.

I recall a city council meeting where Tom Phillips and Yvonne Johnson indicated to Butch Simmons that they wanted some method of getting a renter's permission, but since that wasn't a formal action by the council or a modification to the ordinance, I don't know if or how that request was implemented.

I'm not knocking the ordinance. The intentions are good. It assumed, however, that tenants would sacrifice their Fourth Amendment rights. I don't think homeowners in Greensboro would stand for such a thing. If the city decided it was going to inspect every owner-occupied unit and require an occupancy certificate, well, such an ordinance would never have passed in the first place.

My point is that the ordinance as written was deficient. Something you've noticed with the time-period. But if a renter considers his dwelling to be safe, the inspectors have no reason to beleive it is not safe, and the tenant wants to live to his dying day without letting an inspector into his apartment, there will be some units that are not inspected for years, probably well beyond 2007.

-- Roch

D. Hoggard said...

I truly think the city's efforts and money wouuld be better directed at enforcing OBVIOUS and reported minimum code violators - for which Aycock could be the poster boy.

I'm sure you realize that a Certificate of Occupancy can be with withheld under RUCO for a dripping faucet, a chipped light switch cover, a crack in a plaster wall.

The more I hear about what a time-sucker the ordinance is/will be on our woefully understaffed inspections department, the less I like it.

We (the City) are doing a deadful job of code enforcement right now, adding to that load, without adding a LOT of extra staff, will not make things better in our neighborhood. Quite the opposite.

David Wharton said...

Roch:

Danny Nall (Dept. of Engineering and Inspections) told the GNC a few weeks ago that they send out a notice to the renters, and obtain written permission from them before entering. He said that they hadn't encountered any problems -- or refusals -- so far.

In the scenario you lay out (the contented, privacy-loving tenant), it's certainly conceivable that some units would not get inspected until the renter leaves. No big deal. I think that number of such units would be miniscule.

On the other hand, there are *many* renters living in squalor who are afraid to rat out their landlord for fear of reprisals. For these people, I think RUCO is a great thing.

David:

Yes, a CO can be refused because of minor violations, but, even if the city were to enforce the ordinance this way (and it has said it has no intention of doing so), if the landlord does the repairs in 30 days, there's no fine and no problem. Have you been hanging out with Gary Wegner? ;-)

But I agree with the rest of what you said. We don't have nearly enough inspections staff, and the city quite often doesn't seem to have the stomach to enforce vigorously.

Anonymous said...

Am I confused or is this the one where someone forgot to file something on time and that caused the delay?

southernrants (Sue)

Anonymous said...

David,

The claim that no inspections have been refused is patently false. I know that for a fact. You are getting bad information. I'll post more later.

David Wharton said...

Sue, the situation you're thinking of has to do with a demolition order on some properties owned by Bill Agapion, and isn't directly related to RUCO enforcements.

About those refusals, I'd be interested to know more. I'm drawing from my memory of a meeting several weeks ago, and I could well be wrong. But the gist of what Danny told us was that voluntary RUCO inspections were working OK.