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Decision on housing rules postponed

By Emily Ford
eford@salisburypost.com
SALISBURY — After some members said they needed more specifics, City Council deferred a decision on housing recommendations that stirred months of passionate debate on a committee.
Eight people spoke Tuesday at the public hearing.
Neighborhood advocates were split on supporting the recommendations, which include a long-requested housing commission but would not force landlords to register rental property and undergo regular inspections.
While some neighborhood advocates said the recommendations don’t go far enough, Councilman Brian Miller said they could pit neighbors against each other.
“The devil is in the details,” Miller said. “There is still too loose an understanding of what we are creating here.”
Miller and Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell will work with city staff to further review the recommendations and develop a way to implement them. They will report back to the full council.
The advisory group that made the recommendations voted 8-2 against including a rental registration and inspection program, even though it was the second highest priority at a public forum in February.
“We know the public is behind this,” said Sue McHugh, who serves on the Historic Neighborhoods Alliance and spoke against the recommendations.
Landlords and property managers on the advisory committee vigorously opposed the idea, saying good landlords shouldn’t be punished with costly fees and inconvenient inspections.
A proposed state law — House Bill 554 — would make such a program illegal, said Joe Morris, the city’s planning director.
That’s not reason enough to abandon the idea, said Andrew Pitner, who also serves on the Historic Neighborhoods Alliance.
“A rental registration and inspection program is very important,” Pitner said. “Too many houses don’t meet the minimum code.”
Aging population
The program could be tailored to focus only on the city’s aging rental housing stock, Pitner said.
Miller said he doesn’t think the rental registration program is necessary “because the majority of landlords aren’t misbehaving.”
The city’s code enforcement process is working, Miller said, and new software that will help track problem landlords hasn’t even been installed yet. City staff are scheduled to learn the City View software next week.
If anybody lives in substandard conditions, someone should notify the city, Miller said.
“It will not be tolerated,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”
The advisory committee was weighted in favor of landlords, said neighborhood advocate Anne Lyles, who attended two of the group’s seven meetings.
“I was very disturbed and unhappy with the tone of the meeting,” Lyles said.
Neighborhood members were talked down to and drown out by landlords, she said.
When the committee had found no common ground after four meetings, the city hired a facilitator for the remaining sessions.
Mayor Susan Kluttz said she wasn’t surprised people argued and thought it was healthy.
Blackwell, a former neighborhood president, said she attended five meetings and while heated, “that is not always a bad thing.”
“These people had the courage to state their opinions at the table and to duke it out, as you will,” she said.
Blackwell said she realized some advocates were disappointed the rental registration program was not recommended. However, the committee’s suggestion to establish a housing commission was more than she expected, Blackwell said, and she supported the recommendations.
Miller said the city already has a number of organizations acting as a defacto housing commission.
“I need more convincing of where we’re going and what it is that we are voting on,” he said. “It’s too loose for me to say let’s move forward.”
Longtime neighborhood advocate Barbara Perry spoke in support of the housing commission.
While the recommendations are not exactly what she suggested on behalf of the Neighborhood Leaders Alliance, Perry said, “It is a big, big step in the right direction in establishing a commission of some sort.”
Two landlords spoke in opposition to the recommendations and asked Council not to add rental housing registration and inspections.
David Wood said the city already has too many ordinances it can’t enforce, and the cost of a program would be “astronomical.”
Robert Cobb said the suggestions are unnecessary and ridiculous. Landlords already have to enough to worry about with tenants tearing up their property and causing domestic disturbances, he said.
Calvin Turner, a member of the advisory committee, said the group did the best it could.
“We had a lot of mess in there,” Turner said.
Tensions high
Housing issues are complicated, and tensions were high during the meetings, he said.
While the group couldn’t “squeeze a lemon and get a plum,” Turner said he thought the committee did a good job.
Councilmen William “Pete” Kennedy and Paul Woodson, along with all other council members, praised the committee for its hard work.
“There is no question we do have a problem, and we need to start addressing it,” Kluttz said.
But Council should not yet adopt the recommendations, some of which are vague, she said.
Housing is a complex problem, and establishing a housing commission is not a fix-all, Kluttz said. She said she is particularly concerned about people who can’t afford to fix up their houses in these economic conditions.
The city has many good landlords, and they should not become tied up by restrictions and ordinances aimed at people who aren’t doing things right, Kluttz said.
In her 14 years on the council, Kluttz said she’s seen laws changed with good intentions “that end up trapping the wrong person.”
Council will not delay pursuing the housing issue, she said.
“We understand we have work to do, and we are committed to do it,” she said. “We appreciate your understanding that this is not a simple task.”
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.
Housing issues
Top concerns at a February public forum on housing.
More than 100 people attended, and each cast 10 votes for issues they found most pressing.
1. Code enforcement (200 votes)
2. Rental housing inspection and certification (146)
3. Landlord responsibilities (92)
4. Crime/public safety (63)
5. Court system and rental housing (57)
6. Community appearance (46)
7. Database and information (42)
8. Tenant responsibilities (38)
9. Pit bulls (36)
10. Incentives and investment (31)
11. Education about housing rights and standards (26)
12. Neighborhood revitalization, cohesion (21)
Action plan
Recommendations to City Council from the Advisory Committee on Better Housing and Neighborhood Stabilization:
Advocacy and education.
• Establish an Advocacy and Fair Housing Commission to promote neighborhood health, fair housing and tenant-landlord relationships.
• Educate residents about tenant rights and tenant-landlord responsibilities.
• Provide a forum for third-party conflict resolution between tenants and landlords.
• Partner with neighborhood groups to improve community conditions.
• Enforcement.
• Establish a Code Enforcement Board by re-purposing the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment to enforce inspections and compliance with minimum housing standards.
• Ramp-up code enforcement with sufficient resources to focus on problem areas and chronic offenders of city codes.
• Review and amend city ordinances to create strengthened, common-sense, minimum housing standards.
• Use a debt-collection agency to recover unpaid abatement costs.
• Use City View software to identify repeat violators of minimum housing standards and other code violations.
• Identify geographic concentration of code violations to target enforcement efforts, especially related to vacant and boarded-up houses.
• Consider expanding Community Development Block Grant efforts to additional neighborhoods.
• Aggressively remove code violations from at-risk neighborhoods.
• Step-up law enforcement through the street crimes unit in high-crime areas.
• Build awareness of the Salisbury Neighborhood Action Group (SNAG) as a way for residents to report crime and city code violations.
• Administer a Demolition by Neglect Ordinance in local historic districts.

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