Council Discusses Rental Inspection Program

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By Terry Rogers

On Monday, December 11, Milford City Planner Rob Pierce presented a proposal to hire an outside inspection agency to implement a rental inspection program that was discussed at a Public Hearing on November 13. The proposal would have hired First State Inspection to perform rental inspections that are part of the City code for $50 per inspection.

“Under the contract, First State Inspection would inspect each rental property over a two-year period,” Mr. Pierce said. “Properties that need re-inspection in year’s one and two would be re-inspected in year’s three and four. Those that do not require follow-up would be inspected in year five unless the department finds a reason to inspect sooner. The City will provide landlords with information on the inspection guidelines and information will be sent with renewal notices in December. We will also place the information on the City website.”

Mr. Pierce explained that the cost of outsourcing the rental inspections to First State would be $140,000 and that a portion of the funding was included in the FY2018 budget process. There has been an increase in building permits in the City and that increase would cover the additional cost of the inspection program.

“This will allow us to perform rental inspections Council has been asking for for several years,” Mr. Pierce explained. “We don’t have the staff to inspect all 800 rental units. This contract would allow us to hire two or three more inspectors through a third-party contract. We don’t have to incur any overhead. If we decide to reduce inspectors, we don’t have to lay anyone off. We would pay per inspection. There is no guarantee to the third party of what they will be paid annually. It will be based on how they are scheduled.” Mr. Pierce explained that he considered large apartment complexes not having every unit inspected, but that they would perform a random sampling of the units. Councilmen Chris Mergner and Jamie Burk both questioned the legality of doing a random sampling to which Solicitor Rutt explained that a random sampling would not be an option under the Fair Housing Act. Mr. Pierce explained that the random sampling was an effort to reduce costs but that he would have no problem inspecting all apartments in the City.

“I have gotten phone calls as most of you have, the phones have been ringing,” Councilman Burk said. “I would caution you about your random sampling. I would really rather you treat every unit the same. Because who determines who is picked and who is not. I’ve brought up inspections in the past and a lot of towns have been sued over this and I’d rather us not going down that route.” Councilman Burk also said that there were concerns because the minutes from the November 13th public hearing indicated that concerns about the rental inspection ordinance would be addressed at the meeting on December 11th. According to Mr. Norenberg, the agenda item regarding the contract had been removed from the agenda temporarily because Solicitor Rutt had not reviewed the contract, but that the item was only off the agenda for about six hours.

Mr. Pierce explained that the changes to the ordinance had no bearing on whether the City could enter into a contract with First State Inspection. He pointed out that the changes were mostly housekeeping issues but the code is written in such a way that the City should already be performing the inspections.

“The only thing I am asking for here is some assistance doing the rental inspections,” Mr. Pierce said. “It is not changing any ordinances. It’s not adopting any new standards for the rental inspections. It is just trying to get two or three more part-time third party inspectors to do the rental inspections we already do.”

Councilman Archie Campbell, who is the newest member of City Council, asked if this had been going on for several years to which Councilman Owen Brooks replied that it had been going on for three years, pointing out that the City has been taking money for rental inspections but they were not being completed. Councilwoman Katrina Wilson said that they were doing inspections only based on complaints or when they were requested, not regularly as City code required.

“I have a lot of problems with this,” Councilman Chris Mergner said. “We are taking the money and we have to set out a standard and work with the landlords to come up with the right systems. We don’t have all the answers. These people rent homes every day, let’s engage them and find the right system to do this. Maybe we don’t need to go into every single unit we have in there. I think we need to step back and work with the homeowners. I don’t think we should force it down their throats.”

Mayor Bryan Shupe expressed concerns that Council seemed to be putting things off for more input and that nothing was getting done when this occurred. “If we say we want to meet with the realtors and get their opinion, then we need to do something,” Mayor Shupe said. “It has been three years and we haven’t done anything. We’ve been collecting their money, we’ve been using that money and they’ve been asking us to use that money for this program. We’ve got renters out there who don’t feel safe, that have houses that don’t feel safe, people who don’t want to invest in housing because they see the outside. We have to address this problem. You saw the survey we had, how many people want code enforcement. We can get more input, but we have to quit pushing stuff off. We need to get stuff done.”

Councilman Campbell pointed out that the new hospital was spending millions and the current hospital site has been sold. He said that the current hospital site would bring 200 new jobs to Milford while the children’s hospital planned on the campus of the new Bayhealth campus could bring in 200 more jobs.

“When we ride around some of these places, I’m going to be honest, it’s horrible” Mr. Campbell said. “We gotta fix them up. Otherwise, they are going to live in Frederica, Magnolia or Lewes. We can hem and haw, but we have to do this, we have to do something. Three years is too long.” Councilman Brooks pointed out that he had lived in Milford his entire life and had never seen things so bad.

Mr. Pierce said that he agreed that the problem was not only rental properties, but outsourcing the rental property inspection would allow the City code inspectors to focus on owner-occupied homes. Mayor Shupe said that once they had the contract in place, the City needed to look at hiring an additional code inspector.

“Let’s table this and figure out what we are doing,” Councilman Burk said. “Bryan, I know you are not going to agree with me, but it seems like all we do is ask for more information any more. Maybe it’s because we don’t have confidence in what we are getting. Something like this, when we first started talking about it, I brought in a bunch of articles about towns that got sued over this. I do not want to be responsible for getting sued over this. We’ve waited long enough, we’ve done enough damage., let’s get this right. Let’s get something we can get along with. I don’t like how it was presented. I don’t like how it hit the agenda. It rubs people the wrong way. The people I talk to are not opposed to rental inspections. They just want to know the rules of the game. They don’t feel warm and fuzzy about this. I don’t have a rental. It doesn’t affect me. I am not in a heavily rented neighborhood. I want to have a solid procedure. We are a big enough town and we can figure this out.”

Council voted to table the discussion until January in order to sit down with rental property owners for feedback.

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