Seaford moving one step closer to a decision about business and rental licensing program

By Lynn R. Parks

The housing code for the city of Seaford has all the provisions the city needs to ensure that rental properties are safe. But without a regular inspection program, and with an overburdened code department, all the city is able to do now is respond to reports of inadequate housing. It can do little to protect renters who do not complain. That is the message that members of the city council heard Monday night, during a workshop on a proposed business and rental licensing program. The council is expected to vote at its next meeting whether or not to continue with developing a licensing program. "Now, we are basically reactive," city solicitor Jim Fuqua told the council. "If we are aware of a situation, we go out and deal with it." The city's housing code could be revised to include regular inspections of rental properties, Fuqua added, to make the city more proactive. But without the licensing fees coming into the city, the code department would be hard pressed to find the manpower to do the inspections. "If we revise the housing code to include annual inspections, but include no license and no fee, the council would have to decide, do we add another body to that department," said city manager Dolores Slatcher. "Or are we going to be satisfied with hit and miss." Building official Josh Littleton told the council that his department does the best it can to ensure that rental properties are up to code. "We have 3,000 properties in the city, and at any one time about 150 to 200 of them are in violation," he said. "With three people in the code department, we act reactively, not proactively." "How would having a license change that?" Mayor Ed Butler asked him. "It would mean the ability of the code department to hire someone strictly to inspect rental properties," Littleton answered. "We could enforce the housing code proactively." Fuqua said that a licensing program can be designed to do one of two things: It can be revenue driven, designed to bring money into city coffers, or it can be geared at ensuring regulations are followed, to improve conditions in the city. "As I understand the business license proposal, it is more geared to revenue raising," he said. "The rental licensing is more about regulation. The city is trying to ensure that rental properties meet code and are safe for the people who are living there."

Councilwoman Leanne Phillips-Lowe indicated that she sees the business licensing proposal and the rental licensing proposal as two separate issues, something with which Councilman Rhea Shannon agreed. "We need to see more control of our rental property," Shannon said. "We have a problem with our housing from the [railroad] deep cut east, and we've got to get it under control. But the business license, I'm not sold on it yet." The proposed business and rental license was first presented to the city council at an October 2006 meeting. Then director of operations Charles Anderson, who has since been promoted to assistant city manager, said that the license would allow the city to ensure that rental units are up to code. "We can make sure that rental units have smoke detectors, heat and water," he said. "A lot of times, the only time these things get tested is when we go in and do it. If we can help even one person get heat or running water, this will be worth it." Slatcher told the council Monday night that if it votes to develop a licensing program, implementation of the program would take from 12 to 18 months. The council would have to decide several fine points of the program, including whether nonprofit organizations would be included and whether government-subsidized apartments, already inspected by several agencies, would be subject to city inspection. Under the proposal that Anderson presented, general business licenses would cost $75. A hotel or motel would pay an additional $10 per room. Warehouses and retailers whose facilities are larger than 10,000 square feet would pay $300. Landlords would pay $50 for each apartment they own, $10 per room if they just rent out rooms. Owners of rented storage units would pay $2 per unit. Fees would be paid every year. There would not be an exemption for nonprofit organizations. Anderson said that a fee structure such as this one would bring about $153,800 per year into the city. Cost to the city of maintaining the program would be about $75,000, he said. Since Anderson's original presentation, the city has held two workshops on the licensing proposal. At both workshops, people spoke out against the proposal. No one spoke in its favor. "I have not heard one person speak in favor of this license," business and rental property owner Dick Collison told the council. "I talk to a lot of people during the day, and I have not heard one person in favor of it. If you represent the people, you have to vote against this."

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