Spencer aldermen argue over rental ordinance

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 14, 2018

SPENCER — Tempers flared Tuesday night as the Spencer Board of Aldermen considered approving a new ordinance on rental property remediation.

The proposed ordinance would hold landlords accountable for difficult tenants, something town officials said is a problem in Spencer. To illustrate the point, Land Management Director Troy Powell waved a 148-page document detailing all the police calls related to just three rental properties in the past 10 years.

The ordinance is modeled after similar policies — including one in Salisbury — and would authorize Spencer police officers to keep track of how many times they’re called to specific rental properties occupied by the same tenant within a 12-month period.

Certain calls, such as for drug-related activity and assaults that directly involve the tenant, would count against the property on a point-based system — operating much the same way as points on a driver’s license.

These “disorder calls” include the following categories: alcohol violation, armed robbery, assault, assault with a weapon, civil disturbance, drugs, gunshots, intoxicated people, litter, loud music, overdose, prostitution, rioting, shooting into occupied property, stolen property, suspicious people and trespassing.

The calls would be weighted based on severity, and some crimes — such as gun violence — would result in instant intervention.

“Those types of calls and activities is obviously zero-tolerance,” Powell said.

Domestic violence calls would not be considered a disorder call.

Once a property reaches a “halfway point,” the town would send a warning letter to the landlord. If a property accrues 10 points within 12 months, the town would take action.

“My goal, as well as the police chief’s goal, is simply to preserve safety and public health,” Powell said in a Thursday interview.

The town would call a mandatory remediation meeting with the landlord, who would have a chance to dispute each incident. If the landlord could prove the problem was not the fault of or did not directly involve the tenant, the points would be removed.

If by the end of the meeting the property still had 10 points, the landlord would be required to begin a remedial action plan and be issued a rental permit.

The landlord would then have six months to carry out the plan to the satisfaction of the town. If the property fell below the point threshold (less than 10 points in the past 365 days) at a six-month review, the landlord would be given a certificate of compliance. If the property is still out of compliance, another six-month review would be set.

Properties that fall below the threshold would be cleared. If the landlord evicted the tenant involved in the disturbance calls, the property’s point level would return to zero.

“So they start from ground zero with another tenant,” Powell said.

If the landlord has not been cooperative, the town would revoke the rental permit, and the town would go to court to remove the tenant.

“We’re going to follow the same process (landlords) would have to to evict, except we’re going to be the petitioners,” Powell said.

An appeal could be made to the Board of Adjustments within 10 calendar days of a permit revocation.

While board members Tuesday were largely in favor of the ordinance, there was disagreement over it. Powell said the ordinance was added to Tuesday’s meeting agenda mainly as an information item. But some board members were eager to push it through.

Mayor Jim Gobbel said he was concerned someone would step in and the ordinance would “lose its teeth” if the board sat on it any longer.

“If we wait much longer, I don’t know if we’ll have a leg to stand on,” he said.

But Mayor Pro Tem Sharon Hovis, herself a landlord in Spencer, dug in her heels.

If the board approved the ordinance so quickly, it would take landlords by surprise and they would have no time to weigh in, she said.

“It should not be set-up sabotage,” Hovis said.

According to Powell, a public hearing would not be required before approval of the ordinance. Once approved, there would be a 90-day education period written into the policy, so the ordinance would not be immediately enforced.

but the board was split. Alderman Mike Boone argued that the board should approve the ordinance.

“This is only going to affect a few people in this town,” he said.

Kevin Jones, who owns rental property in Spencer, disagreed.

“It could impact anyone who has one of those events — or multiple smaller events,” he said.

Hovis said the board should be transparent and give landlords the opportunity to speak their minds — or at least become informed. Gobbel countered her argument.

“Sharon, we’ve got 90 days,” he said.

“You guys just don’t want to discuss this,” Hovis responded. “You just want to jump right into it.”

Alderman David Lamanno tried to ease tensions by suggesting the board bring the policy back at its October meeting. That would give ample time to hear from landlords and talk to stakeholders, he said.

“There may be some questions from the stakeholders we haven’t even thought of,” he said.

“Could we not just approve it and not enforce it?” Gobbel asked.

Lamanno said that would be bad for town relationships.

“It’s a partnership,” he said.

“There’s no partnership — not with those kind of people,” Gobbel quipped.

“There you go again with those pronouns,” Hovis cut in. “‘They, them and these.'”

It’s still important, she said, to be open with the public.

“People might not even come up here,” she said. “But at least we gave them a chance.”

Powell agreed.

“A code of this complexity? It would be great to have a public hearing,” he said.

Gobbel still pushed for approving the ordinance Tuesday. Hovis advised caution.

“That is the quickest way to lose your career,” she said.

Gobbel finally relented and said he would abide by whatever the board decided. Alderman David Smith suggested tabling the ordinance for 30 days.

“Let’s be transparent about this,” he said. “Let’s not blindside people. There are people out there who vote for us.”

The board agreed to bring the ordinance back at its Oct. 9 meeting. Town residents can read the proposed ordinance at Town Hall during business hours. Powell said he is working to get the document put on the town’s website.

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264.