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City Council gives landlords 48 hours to fix worst hazards

SALISBURY — Instead of 60 days, Salisbury landlords now have 48 hours to fix six life-threatening property conditions, or the city can remove their tenants.
Landlords also have 48 hours to present a plan to repair a dozen other conditions that are unsafe but not life-threatening, but they will have more time to fix those conditions.
City Council on Tuesday toughened up the city’s minimum housing standards, which had not been updated since 1977. The city will not inspect rental property unless someone files a complaint.
The most dangerous living conditions now require near-immediate attention. Once they are notified of the problem, property owners 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
“These are simple, easy repairs,” said Nathan Chambers, a property manager who also serves on the city’s Housing Advocacy Commission that suggested the updates.
All six items are five-to-10-minute repairs, Chambers said, unless a property has a large accumulation of trash that could take longer to remove.
City Council also passed a second list of unsafe conditions, where property owners must provide a written plan within 48 hours but will have more time to make repairs. These conditions include:
• No heat
• No water
• No electricity
• Unsafe or inoperable mechanical equipment
• Unsafe cooking equipment
• Failing structural members
• 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
“It’s not like it has to done in 48 hours, it’s just an issue of communication,” Chambers said. “You need to tell the city your plan and keep the city updated.”
Chambers manages nearly 500 properties and said the new requirements are fine with him, including the 48-hour deadline.
“There’s some experience sitting in that chair,” Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell said.
The only person who spoke against the updates was Titus King, who said the list of hazardous conditions was not clear and complained that the city rushes to demolish houses in poor neighborhoods.
“Let us know what is a hazard,” King said.
King said he did not see a reason to change the code.
“It’s strange that all these years before now, everything is working,” he said. “There’s bumps in everything but now, all of a sudden, we needed to deal with issues that have not been an issue.”
King also said elderly people cannot respond quickly to evacuating a property and the updated rules will burden landlords and add expense.
King’s relatives own two properties in the city that helped prompt the code changes. The city recently closed a boarding house owned by his father, Nathan King Sr., at 507 N. Long St. after code enforcement officials worked for more than a year to bring the property up to code.
While Nathan King said he made the repairs required, city officials said the house still did not meet minimum standards.
City Council last year discussed living conditions in several houses on East 11th Street owned by John King, a brother of Titus King. The city determined the houses did not meet minimum housing standards.
John King agreed to make repairs, and the occupants were not removed. The houses still stand, and Code Services Division Manager Chris Branham was scheduled to reinspect them recently.
The new rules are intended to protect renters from dangerous living conditions, Branham said.
“The point of this is to get a person out of an unsafe condition,” he said.
The 48-hour clock does not start until the owner receives the notice of violation, and the code changes do not override or replace legal eviction of tenants, Branham said.
If the property owner does not repair the hazard, the city can condemn the property. The city can remove the tenants, but property owners would have to go through the formal eviction process if they want to rent the property to someone else.
The code updates on unsafe conditions do not apply to vacant properties, Branham said. Minor violations like missing vinyl in the bathroom are not unsafe conditions, and property owners have 90 days to make repairs, he said.
If tenants are removed and have nowhere to go, the city would refer them to Rowan Helping Ministries, the American Red Cross or a similar agency for temporary housing, Branham said. City officials would make sure they have a place to stay immediately, he said.
William Peoples, another Housing Advocacy Commission member, said landlords are collecting rent and should have a reserve fund to make emergency repairs to ensure safe living conditions for their tenants.
“I don’t care who the person is, they have a right to a decent place that they are spending money to stay at,” Peoples said.
The code changes, which run for 16 pages, also allow the city for the first time to declare a home that is unfit for human habitation as a nuisance, the first step toward demolition. This concerned Brian Davis, executive director for Historic Salisbury Foundation, who said he does not want unoccupied houses that are property secured to be demolished.
The city should make repairs to vacant houses and then place a lien on the properties, Davis said. The $5,000 to $8,000 the city would spend on demolition could go a long way to making repairs, he said.
“Demolition erodes already vulnerable neighborhoods,” he said.
Branham said homes that are declared a nuisance still can be repaired, and demolition requests still will come before City Council and, in some cases, the city’s Historic Preservation Commission.
“We drive trucks and not bulldozers for a reason,” Branham said. “We want to do what we can to preserve a house.”
Rodney Queen and Barbara Perry, both from the Housing Advocacy Commission, spoke in favor of the new regulations.
Queen said some tenants do not realize they are living in substandard conditions and need to be educated about their rights. Perry said for years, neighborhood leaders have asked for an updated code.
“The cry has been for at least 10 years to have safe homes and live next door to a safe and decent home,” she said.
Council members Brian Miller, Pete Kennedy and Karen Alexander all own rental property and supported the new rules.
“As landlords, we have a responsibility to our tenants when we are receiving money from them,” Alexander said.
If landlords cannot provide a safe environment, “then we should not have people living in our homes,” she said.
Miller said like with any code enforcement in the city, “using common sense in how we apply the rules is key.” Mayor Paul Woodson agreed.
Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell, who serves as liaison to the housing commission, said members worked hard to leave nothing open to interpretation in the updated code.
“Everything is very specific and measurable,” Blackwell said.

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