City of Seaford looks to put licensing, inspection system in place for rentals

By Lynn R. Parks

There are 1,735 rental units in the city of Seaford. And the huge majority of them, 95 percent or more, are in good shape, said assistant city manager Charles Anderson.
But it is the other five percent or so that has the city worried. These are apartments and homes that have families living in them and that have sewage in the basement. Rotten floors. Exposed wiring. Collapsed ceilings. And piles of garbage sitting outside.
'Children live in some of these places,' said Anderson, running through a slideshow of pictures of conditions that city inspectors have found in the past few years. 'In others, the elderly are living there. These are our more vulnerable populations, and we should be able to make sure they have good living conditions. That's kind of why cities exist, to raise the bar for all people.'
The city would like to put in place a licensing and inspection system, so that landlords would have to get permits for their rental properties. That would do two things, Anderson said. First, it would enable the city to know what apartments and houses are being rented out, and by whom.
'It would help us to know who we are dealing with,' he added. 'We really don't know, and we don't have contact information in case there's a problem.' Second, the annual inspections required by the permit would allow the city to make sure that the units that people are renting meet city housing codes. A public hearing on the city's plan for the licensing and inspection system was set for Nov. 1. But after an outcry from area landlords, the workshop was cancelled. Instead, the city is putting together a committee of people, including landlords and city employees, to come up with a plan to help ensure that living conditions in rental units are healthy.
Jack Riddle, who owns two rental units in the city, was one of the landlords who voiced his opposition to the licensing and inspection system. He argued in an email that it would 'penalize those [landlords] who do the right thing.to get to the ones that don't take care of their properties.'
Speaking by phone, Riddle added that the only thing that a licensing fee would do would be to hike the costs of renting living space in Seaford. 'We need to keep rents as low as we can, to keep people here,' he said.
He questioned whether the license would even accomplish the city's goals. 'How could this be enforced, if the city doesn't know who the renters are?' he said. 'People who already aren't abiding by the codes aren't going to register as landlords. I'm doing the right things already. I don't need another layer of government to tell me what to do.'
Also opposed to the rental license is George Farnell, president and CEO of Callaway, Farnell and Moore Real Estate, Seaford. His company manages two apartment complexes in Seaford, Bradford Terrace and Colonial Gardens, and about eight rented houses. And already, he said, those properties pay a lot to the city.
'We have huge taxes,' he said. 'We have huge electric bills from the city, and water and sewer bills.' For each apartment, over the course of one year, those three expenses add up to one month's rent, he added.
All of the units managed by Callaway, Farnell and Moore are up to code, Farnell said. 'When we become aware of a problem, we fix it. If the city has a problem, the people who own those units should pay to fix the problem.' It's not the job of businesses like his, he added, to participate in a program to facilitate the process.

Yearly inspections

Anderson said that under the current system, the city becomes aware of bad living conditions in a unit only when someone else sees it and notifies city hall.A neighbor might call in, for example, or someone from the state's Department of Services for Children, Youth and their Families who visited the home might make a report. Sometimes, he said, the Seaford Volunteer Fire Department may notify the city that a home that volunteers were called to for an emergency warrants looking into.
Under the city's proposal, inspectors would visit rental units every year. Landlords would have checklists in advance, indicating what the inspectors were going to look at. 'We are trying to be transparent,' Anderson said.
Outside, inspectors would look at grass and trees to make sure that they meet city code. They would also check that there are no unlicensed cars in the yard, and that there aren't piles of garbage sitting around.
On the home's exterior, inspectors would ensure that the house number is displayed as required by law and that steps, railings, siding, paint, windows, screens, roofs and doors are in good shape.
Inside, inspectors would examine the walls to ensure that they don't have holes in them. They would look at paint, railings, windows, doors, floors, light fixtures, electrical systems, plumbing and general sanitary conditions.
During the inspection, landlords, as well as residents, would be welcome to walk along with the inspectors. At the end, the landlord would be notified of any violations that the inspectors found.

'If the problems are fixed, that is the end of the matter,' Anderson said. There wouldn't be any fines.
For more complex situations, the city and the landlord would come up with a work plan and a deadline for completion; in cases where building permits are required, the work plan would become part of the permit. If the deadline came and the work still wasn't done, the landlord would be able to apply for an extension. 'We try not to be dictatorial,' Anderson said.
But eventually, time would be up. Landlords who don't fix problems could find that, when they applied for city services, the applications are denied. In extreme circumstances, the building could be condemned.
'We have a number of tools in our tool belt to get people to comply,' Anderson said. 'It is our duty to rescue people from dangerous conditions.' Trisha Newcomer, the city's economic development manager, echoed that. 'We want to make sure that residents have healthy living conditions,' she said. Some rental units that the city has been able to inspect haven't had both hot and cold water at all sinks, Anderson said. Others have insect and rodent infestations Ñ cockroaches run into hiding when the light is turned on, for example Ñ or have water pipes that are incorrectly fastened together. 'If you use the improper glue, hot water pipes can blow apart,' Anderson said. Or 'you can make people sick.'
The home that had sewage in the basement, a picture of which was in the slideshow that Anderson showed, had a leaking wastewater pipe. The accumulation of waste 'happened one flush at a time,' Anderson said.
Still other units that city inspectors have gone into have had fire hazards, such as exposed or incorrectly installed wiring and kerosene heaters too close to curtains or blankets, materials that could go up in flames. At least one bedroom had a lock on the door that locked from the outside of the room. A person caught in a fire in the room would not be able to get out if that lock was locked.
All of the rental units in which city inspectors found these conditions were occupied at the time, Anderson said.

Workshop cancelled, change of plans

When Mayor Genshaw cancelled the scheduled workshop on rental licenses, he said that some landlords had accused the city of instituting the program simply to generate revenue, a charge he denied. Any fee that would be collected would be used to pay for the program. Anderson said that the city looked at whether it was feasible to do necessary inspections with existing staff, and determined that in the short term, it was. 'But it would definitely increase the workload,' he said.
Genshaw has walked back an earlier claim, that the inspection program would help the city to fight crime. 'A lot of rental properties are experiencing some illegal activities,' he said in October. 'If we are serious about cleaning up the drug sales and prostitution that is going on, this is part of the element that we need to do.'
But last week, Genshaw said that, while he still believes that 'inspecting properties would discourage any illegal activities that may go on,' the rental permit would simply be a key 'to ensure landlords are following the codes.'
As for now, the licensing program is on hold. The city is still putting together the committee to look into the matter, Genshaw said.
Riddle said that he would be happy to be a part of that effort. 'It seems that the city is throwing a wide net over everyone to deal with a couple of small problems,' he said. 'I don't know what the answer is. But I would be part of a think tank to come up with a solution.'
Farnell believes that the city already has what it needs to make sure that rental units are livable. 'The police department knows where the problem units are,' he said. 'The utility department knows. It would seem that the city already has the facility to find out where these problems are, without taxing every landlord or hiring a couple of people to go around and look.'

What neighboring communities do

Bridgeville

The town of Bridgeville enacted a residential rental property code in 2010. Under it, landlords have to have licenses for all rental properties; licensing fee is $25 per bedroom.
The town conducts annual inspections of rental properties, to ensure that they meet town code. If any violations are found, the town issues a notice ordering the landlord to correct the problem.
The town has 141 licensed rental properties.

Laurel

Landlords in Laurel pay $100 a year per unit for renting licenses. All rental units are inspected by the town once a year.
The town has about 800 apartments and rented houses.

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