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City considers tougher minimum housing standards

SALISBURY — The city’s new Housing Advocacy Commission wants City Council to toughen up Salisbury’s minimum housing rules to protect renters from dangerous living conditions and speed the removal of problem tenants.
City Council heard the recommendations Tuesday and set a public hearing for Feb. 18.
Under the suggested amendments, the most dangerous living conditions would require near-immediate attention. Instead of the current 60 days, property owners would have 48 hours to fix the following hazards:
• Unsafe fuel containers stored inside
• Blocked exits
• Presence of raw sewage or no sanitary facilities
• No operable smoke or carbon monoxide detectors
• Accumulation of garbage inside
• Flammable or combustible items inside, such as mopeds
If owners do not address the conditions within two days of being notified, the city’s code enforcement officers could ask City Council to condemn the property. That would allow the city to close the structure and remove the tenants, said Chris Branham, Code Services Division manager.
The city also could fine property owners who do not comply, Branham said.
Councilman Brian Miller said a landlord may be out of town when the conditions are discovered and not be able to fix the problems within 48 hours of notification.
“Two days is not a lot of time to fix things if you are not here,” Miller said. “Why two days?”
Branham said the two-day deadline, as well as other recommended code changes, are based on Greensboro’s minimum housing standards, which have been effective.
Miller, Councilwoman Karen Alexander and Councilman Pete Kennedy are all landlords.
Mayor Paul Woodson said he also was concerned with the short compliance window.
“Going from 60 days to 48 hours?” he said.
But Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell, who serves as the liaison to the Housing Advocacy Commission, said every amendment suggested by the group is currently in use in another city.
“Nothing we are proposing here is breaking ground or new law,” Blackwell said. “It’s all been vetted by other cities.”
At every point during months of research, housing commission members called other cities and examined similar ordinances to determine what works well and what other municipalities would do differently, she said.
Property owners also would have two days to either fix the following problems or present a compliance plan in writing:
• No heat, water or electricity
• Unsafe or inoperable mechanical equipment
• Unsafe cooking equipment
• Failing structural issues
• Overloaded or unsafe electrical system
• Missing roof
• Unsafe chimney flues
• Interior wall sheathing missing
• Holes in floor creating a hazard
• Five or more minor violations
The compliance plan would have to state why the hazard cannot be corrected within 48 hours, who will perform the repair work and whether a permit will be required to complete the work.
The housing commission wanted to give property owners time to properly repair hazards that might require a permit or skilled craftsman, Branham said, “rather than do a quick fix which may be even worse.”
The recommended amendments lay out the responsibilities of owners and occupants but also state that owners are ultimately accountable for their property.
“Every owner shall remain ultimately responsible for violations of responsibilities imposed upon him by this chapter or any other ordinance, although a similar responsibility may also be imposed upon the occupant,” the draft reads.
Alexander asked who would be responsible in situations where the tenant caused the hazard, such as accumulation of garbage inside a house. Branham agreed that while a property owner probably would not pile garage inside a rental house, the owner still is accountable.
If the house falls below minimum standards, whether by fault of the owner or occupant, the dwelling would be rendered uninhabitable, Branham said.
“I’m not saying the owner caused it, but if they don’t fix it, it will be condemned and (the tenants) would have to leave,” he said.
Some landlords never go inside the rental houses they own, Branham said.
Similarly, Alexander said tenants are often responsible for paying utility bills. She asked what would happen if a tenant did not pay the water bill and the service was shut off.
The home would be considered uninhabitable, Branham said.
“They need to leave,” he said. “Then the owner can get another tenant that will have the water turned on.”
The city would not conduct regular inspections of rental homes, Branham said, but would rely on complaints to learn about substandard living conditions. The city would inspect homes where code violations are visible from the outside, such as broken windows.
Miller said the recommended changes would give tenants a process to make sure the city addresses substandard housing while also speeding up the eviction process for landlords with problem tenants.
“Absolutely,” Branham said. “They would be out of the house through the condemnation order.”
Property owners still would need to go through the state-regulated eviction process, which would not be affected by city code changes, he said.
Under the recommended amendments, homes deemed unfit for human habitation could be declared a nuisance, the first step in the demolition process if they are not repaired.
City code governing housing conditions, which is intended to protect the public health, safety and welfare, has not been updated since 1977.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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