Bill threatens city rental inspections

Apr. 26, 2013 @ 06:37 PM

 A bill pending in the N.C. House could force the city to radically change or downsize the rental-inspections program the Neighborhood Improvement Services Department launched last year.

Sponsored by four Republicans, the bill would allow regular inspections – as opposed to the complaint-driven variety – in only one square mile’s worth of blighted neighborhoods.

It also would force cities to include owner-occupied along with tenant-occupied homes if they want to look on a scheduled basis for violations of their housing codes.

The bill cleared the House Government Committee on Thursday and will reach the floor of the chamber in the near future. State Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham, said it had strong GOP support in the committee.

Luebke tried to amend the bill to allow cities to designate up to 15 square miles’ worth of neighborhoods for regular inspections. But his request was defeated in what he said was a party line, 20-9 vote.

Durham’s Periodic Rental Inspections Program initially targeted 13 square miles of the city.

One of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. William Brawley, R-Mecklenburg, did agree to work with Luebke on a potential floor amendment that would change the limit to “a percentage of the square mileage of a city.”

Depending on how the amendment is written, that could give larger cities like Durham more room to conduct inspections.

But city officials said the square-mileage limit is only one of their concerns about the bill.

Senior Assistant City Attorney Emanuel McGirt singled out the requirement to include owner-occupied units in the program as a major change.

For the current program, “the whole purpose is to target rental properties because it’s the city’s position that’s where most of the problems are found,” McGirt said.

The City Council approved the program in March 2012 in response to longstanding complaints about substandard housing in central and east Durham.

NIS inspectors between the start of July and the end of January examined 1,965 units and found code violations in 73 percent of them, according to a report department officials gave the council in February.

The most common violations were missing or inoperable smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, damaged windows, leaky plumbing, peeling paint and insect infestations, the report said.

The program’s most high-profile target was the Lincoln Apartments complex near N.C. Central University. Lincoln’s then-owner, a non-profit foundation, opted to close the 150-unit property rather than ante up the money to correct the code violations NIS inspectors found.

It eventually sold the complex to the Durham Housing Authority, which upheld the closure decision.

City and county officials, church groups and local nonprofits worked together to arrange services and new housing for Lincoln’s mostly low-income clientele.

DHA officials said their review of Lincoln’s books showed the complex wasn’t a viable business. Tenants also complained of business irregularities that included the acceptance by management of off-the-books barter deals in lieu of rent.

Luebke said the likely effects of the bill on Durham make the city “collateral damage” in another community’s dispute.

“The purpose of the bill is to respond to a situation in Charlotte, which has bothered several Charlotte legislators,” Luebke said. “In addressing their grievance with Charlotte, they drafted a statewide bill that catches Durham, Greensboro, Asheville and every other city in the net.”

Brawley couldn’t be reached Friday for comment.