Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Business as Usual - A Fellow Blogger Speaks

From time to time the Zonemaven runs across writings on the subject of illegal rooming houses and rentals in general that are especially well written, to the point and worthy of repeating. Dennis Duross of Lexington, Kentucky has a blog similar to Twilight Zoning in Bellingham. Here is his latest post, entitled “Business as Usual”, quoted in its entirety.


"If you’re a public official in Lexington, the real issue, should the discussion ever turn (don’t worry—it rarely does) to the topic of what to do about rental properties in town, is health and safety.


All the rest of it—the complaints about noise, trash, over-crowding, traffic, zoning and enforcement, the slow physical decline of the housing stock in an area of town that logically ought to be among the strongest in town, the lack of affordable housing for those of modest income, the unGodly sums local landlords extract from their tenants each month, the unfair advantage that LLC’s enjoy in terms of their ability to outbid potential homeowners for properties as they come on the market, the illegal conversion of these properties to lodging houses, the resulting dwindling number of single-family houses (1) in the affected areas, and the intrusion of business into low-density residential neighborhoods—is by comparison small potatoes.


But health and safety? That ought to be keeping people up at night, because God forbid it should ever happen here, but the internet is full of stories about rat traps and hell holes masquerading as rooming houses, boarding houses, lodging houses, apartment houses—call them what you want—burning to the ground and taking some poor unfortunate along for the ride.


And all too often, that’s when the teachable moment arrives. Only after such a tragedy shakes public officials from whatever stupor it is that immobilizes them, that insulates them, that locks their common sense tight in a box and keeps it from intruding on the business of the day, do they see what needs to be done and act accordingly. Apparently it’s human nature. (2)


We’ve been lucky to have avoided this type of tragedy in Lexington, but make no mistake about it—it’s nothing more than dumb luck standing between where we are now and where we hope to never be. For years and years, we’ve debated about what has come to be called the student housing problem, more properly called the illegal lodging house problem, and we’ve come up empty. No concrete action. And in the absence of meaningful change, the problem has gotten worse. Entropy has a way of doing that, especially when it’s fueled by greed.


So our fallback position is to keep our fingers crossed that nothing terrible happens in one (or more) of our city’s countless uninspected rental properties, because at the moment, that’s about all we can muster the courage to do—hope nothing goes wrong. We’re getting by on a wing and a prayer.


And speaking of wings, consider the following—the Lexington Fayette County Health Department conducts restaurant inspections every 6 months. Inspections that yes, represent a burden on local businesspeople. Inspections that yes, sometimes force restaurants to close and remedy the problems noted onsite. But inspections that protect the health and safety of the population. Inspections that inform the public about an establishment’s conditions, and that are posted both in the newspaper and in the restaurants themselves. Inspections that we all take for granted as necessary and valuable.Does anyone doubt that absent these inspections, public health would be adversely affected? Would anyone in their right mind propose putting an end to them simply because they rub the business community the wrong way?


I would argue that local landlords should be held to standards comparable to those that we expect of the local pancake house. I would argue that this is a matter of public health and safety—just as making sure there isn’t rat poop in the walk-in cooler, or that cross-contamination hasn’t turned the kitchen into a biohazard are matters of public health and safety.


I would argue that if the Health Department can do it, so can Building Inspection. That if local restauranteurs can bear the burden of twice-yearly inspections, so can local landlords bear the burden of once-yearly inspections. That if dinner patrons can bear the cost that is surely passed on to them, so can (and must) those who live in rental properties bear the modest increase in rent (3) that would doubtless be passed on to them.


Take a look at the long list (in the sidebar) [Zonemaven has posted the same list on the side bar of this blog - at left] of cities all across the country that have established rental licensing and inspection programs. Normal, everyday places both big and small that have made a commitment to public safety ahead of us. Places where the concerns of the business community regarding unfettered profit and zero oversight have been put in their proper place—second to public health and safety.

There’s no excuse for ignoring this modest and common sense level of safety.


1. God I hate that term.
2. I blame Robert’s Rules of Order and public comment equally, but that’s just me.
3. Rental licensing fees typically cost a landlord between four and eight dollars per month per unit. Don’t let them tell you otherwise."


Well said, Dennis. Bellingham, are you listening?

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

If safety is thee most importnat issue, then why not inspect all properties and not just rentals? Maybe there is a privacy issue?

zonemaven said...

The short answer is that rentals are a business. Once you offer a product or a service to the public, the product or service should be safe for the consumer or user.

Dennis said...

Dick's absolutely right. These are businesses that offer a service (lodging) for a fee. My underlying claim is that as such, they have no place in low-density residential neighborhoods, as our zoning ordinance in Lexington prohibits them (although it does a rather poor job of it). However, if we're hell-bent on ignoring that aspect of the matter, at least we ought to be able to agree that they should be in safe and decent condition. That's all.

Anonymous said...

Way to duck the question. If safety is the most important thing all homes should be inspected. Don't we all want big brother in our bedroom?

Anonymous said...

I quess your bio speaks for itself. You want gov't to control everybodies life

zonemaven said...

Dear Anonymous,

I am not sure what the bedroom has to do with any of this. I hear this red herring argument quite frequently. Unless you are using your charcoal BBQ for heating your bedroom or your marijuana plants in the guest room, I have no interest in your legal activities as a renter.

I see no problem at all in having the city closely inspect a rental dwelling on a periodic basis for safety issues either before or after it is rented. As for problems which may arise while the dwelling is occupied, normal privacy concerns apply to any home unless there is probable cause that a violation of the law is taking place.

zonemaven said...

Dear Anonymous,

Your comment regarding my bio has nothing to do with my statements regarding illegal rooming houses. Such ad hominem attacks are not relevant to the facts on illegal rooming houses, to which, by the way, I am always willing to speak. Would you not enhance your credibility by doing the same?

Terry said...

Anonymous said:

"If safety is thee most importnat issue, then why not inspect all properties and not just rentals? Maybe there is a privacy issue?"


DING! DING! DING! We have a winner!

Inconvenient truth:

Homeowners are happy to impose costs and privacy intrusions on renters and landlords, but unwilling to accept similar costs on themselves.

Terry said...

Zonemaven said:

"I see no problem at all in having the city closely inspect a rental dwelling on a periodic basis for safety issues either before or after it is rented. As for problems which may arise while the dwelling is occupied, normal privacy concerns apply to any home unless there is probable cause that a violation of the law is taking place. "

AH, some great common sense!

I lived in a town which insisted on inspecting every rental, every year, and charging landlords a hefty sum for the privilege.

I lived 15 years in one place, and found the annual city inspections bothersome. My landlord - who was merely managing the property for his MIL who lived in the house for decades before retiring - had a busy schedule and was always inconvenienced, since the inspections are scheduled around the inspector's schedule and not so much the landlord's. (e.g. forget about evenings or weekends)

Performing pre-occupancy inspections - rather than ongoing during occupancy - makes great sense and minimizes hassle.