Housing committee makes progress

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 18, 2011

By Emily Ford
Despite raised voices, interruptions and a lack of consensus on key points, the Better Housing Committee made progress this week, according to a consultant and city officials.
The city hired Glenn Harbeck, a consultant from Wilmington, to facilitate meetings for the committee, made up of residents appointed by City Council in November.
Harbeck, who has worked with Salisbury since 1988, facilitated the groupís fifth meeting Wednesday.
Harbeck said he was pleased with the vigorous debate. The committee is tackling contentious issues like whether the city should inspect rental property and what to do about abandoned houses and irresponsible tenants.
ěI didnít see anything unusual about that committee,î Harbeck said. ěThe worst thing is when everybody is quiet and nobody says anything.î
After four meetings, the committee had come to a stalemate between landlords and neighborhood advocates.
ěIt has been totally dysfunctional,î said former member Garth Birdsey, who resigned before Wednesdayís meeting because he took a new job abroad. ěWhen discussions start happening, it turns into a bickering session between the two viewpoints.î
Using a trained, objective facilitator helped, said Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell.
ěI saw progress,î said Blackwell, who has attended all the committee meetings. ěThereís definitely more of a conciliatory mood.î
Committee members began to acknowledge each otherís positions on divisive issues, she said.
ěI really saw growth, and Iím optimistic,î Blackwell said, adding she believes the committee will bring an ěexcellentî plan to City Council.
The committee spent more than two hours discussing the results of a public forum held last month and attended by more than 100 people. Harbeck also facilitated the forum and provided the committee with a 10-page summary, including every concern expressed during a small-group process.
Harbeck grouped the concerns under 12 topics, ranked by the number of votes they received at the forum. Each forum participant cast up to 10 votes.
Topics include:
Code enforcement, 200 votes.
Rental housing inspection and certification, 146.
Landlord responsibilities, 92.
Crime/public safety, 63.
Court system and rental housing, 57.
Community appearance, 46.
Database and information, 42.
Tenant responsibilities, 38.
Pit bulls, 36.
Incentives and investment, 31.
Education about housing rights and standards, 26.
Neighborhood revitalization, cohesion, 21.
The committee only covered three or four topics Wednesday, with heated debate surrounding whether rental properties should be inspected.
ěWhile we didnít get through the 12, there was also a sort of general agreement that we had tackled the most thorny issues,î Harbeck said.
The committee did reach some consensus, he said.
ěEverybody agrees that we need to get after landlords who are not taking care of their property,î Harbeck said. ěThe disagreement comes over how.î
While neighborhood advocates continue to push for regular, required inspections of rental property, landlords resist, calling them costly and inconvenient.
Committee members agreed they need to consult an attorney and made a long list of legal questions.
ěI couldnít be prouder as a Salisbury citizen myself that people are having a very deliberate, thoughtful conversation about this very important issue,î City Planner Joe Morris said. ěAnd I think itís good for our community to have these kinds of discussions. Itís going to make us better.î
Although three landlords and property managers on the committee did most of the talking, Morris said he wouldnít characterize them as dominating the meeting.
ěThey were expressing their point of view, and they probably have a lot of concerns in terms of what the ultimate recommendations might look like in terms of affecting their businesses,î Morris said.
Throughout the process, committee members have had equal opportunity to speak, Morris said, and the public forum provided a chance for others to make their views known.
Housing is a multi-faceted issue, he said, and the committee has several important decisions to make.
ěThey are passionate about what they believe,î Morris said. ěItís not unexpected to have strong feelings about these issues.î
To prevent disruptions from audience members who spoke without recognition from committee chairmen Nathan Chamber and Lou Manning, Morris said he would ask the audience to refrain from talking at the next meeting.
He also said he might suggest the committee take public comment at the end of the meeting.
The city pays Harbeck $150 an hour plus expenses. To cut down on travel expenses, Salisbury will try to schedule Harbeck when heís in the area anyway, Morris said.
The next housing committee meeting is 2 p.m. March 30 at the Park Avenue Community Center.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.