Karriker questions rental-inspections program
A City Council candidate has called for a rethink by officials of the Neighborhood Improvement Services Department’s rental-inspections program.
Pam Karriker, who’s running for the Ward 3 seat, says she believes the inspections are affecting the affordability of apartments at a time when the community needs all the low-cost units it can get.
“When the program was put into place, it was definitely needed, there were definitely landlords who were abusing their clients, and we needed to do something about that,” Karriker said on Wednesday.
“However, the way it’s worked out, we have reduced quantity at a time when we are desperate for affordable housing,” she said. “I’m not saying do away with it, but we need to rethink the way we’re doing it. I’m not critical of the intent of the program, but don’t think it’s turned out the way we have intended.”
Karriker’s comments to The Herald-Sun echoed her answer to a candidate questionnaire published last week by The Independent Weekly.
It stood out because nearly every other candidate for city office, including her Ward 3 opponent, voiced support for the inspections.
Ward 3 incumbent Don Moffitt told The Independent NIS “is doing a great job of meeting” the council’s goals for the program, and added that his main worry is that the N.C. General Assembly may someday take away from cities the authority to conduct periodic inspections.
Mayor Bill Bell called the inspections “a successful program” and said they have “improved the quality of rental housing” in the center-city neighborhoods NIS has targeted. Opponent Michael Valentine agreed.
Ward 2 candidate Omar Beasley also called the program “successful,” and fellow Ward 2 contender Del Mattioli said “an evaluation of our rental homes is necessary to protect both our renters and landlords.”
Another Ward 2 contender, Eddie Davis, said the program “works well” for “civic-minded” landlords and added he’d need to hear “much more dialogue” and study before he could offer suggestions for improvement.
The remaining Ward 2 candidate, Franklin Hanes, said that while he didn’t know whether the program could address housing quality, it’s clear Durham has long had a problem with substandard housing.
The council gave NIS the green light to launch the program in the spring of 2012.
It initially targeted seven neighborhoods clustered around downtown for scheduled inspections of rental units, as opposed to the traditional approach of waiting for someone to complain about the condition of a property.
In March, NIS Director Constance Stancil reported that in the program’s first seven months, her inspectors had visited 1,965 units and found violations of the city’s minimum housing code in 73 percent of them.
Common problems including missing or inoperable smoke detectors, damaged windows, leaky plumbing, peeling paint and insect infestations.
Karriker, however, told The Independent she believes the program has cut into landlords’ profit margins, forced them to raise security deposits and encouraged some property owners to get out of the rental business entirely.
“I’m just hearing from property owners and from people who absolutely cannot find housing,” she said Wednesday of her sources of information.
She added that the closure last year of the Lincoln Apartments complex near N.C. Central University “definitely pointed out how desperate the situation is.”
Lincoln was an early target of the rental-inspections program, and its nonprofit owner opted to close the 150-unit complex rather than make needed repairs.
NIS inspectors initially checked 71 units at Lincoln and found code violations in all but 27; the 27 were largely being maintained by tenants rather than the landlord, officials said.
But Lincoln was known to be on shaky ground before the inspections. The nonprofit had tried to sell the complex in 2011 to the Durham Housing Authority, which declined the offer.
DHA’s chief, Dallas Parks, said last year that Lincoln’s owners had been running deep deficits. He questioned the viability of the business.
Tenants and advocacy groups also complained of irregular business practices, including the acceptance by Lincoln’s managers of barter arrangements in lieu of rent.
The closure nonetheless sparked a scramble by officials and advocates to find new housing for Lincoln’s low-income clientele.
One advocate, Genesis Home Executive Ryan Fehrman, said Lincoln’s closure and a “sequester” cut of federal Section 8 rental vouchers has taken out of circulation about 500 low-cost units that could otherwise be serving the poor.
But the inspection program “is probably a very small contributing factor to a much larger problem,” he said.
“I come from a place where housing should not only be affordable, it should also be safe and decent,” said Fehrman, whose group tries to line up housing for the homeless. “If a rental unit cannot pass a basic inspection, it’s not a place I want one of my families living.”
Parks confirmed that the sequester has cost DHA about $1 million in voucher subsidies it had otherwise expected. That forced it to stop leasing additional units.
Karriker said her concern also stems from reports she’s heard that some landlords have stopped accepting Section 8 vouchers, among them a north Durham apartment complex that has housed 80 families from that program.
But Parks said the number of landlords who accept vouchers in Durham has grown from about 900 when he hired on in 2010 to more than 1,000 today.
“Lately a few have opted not to participate in program, only a handful, not an appreciable number, not anything that would raise a flag,” he said.
He added that the problem in Section 8 is the availability of funds given congressional budget cutting, and that anecdotal reports from two or three are “not really a valid statistical sampling.”