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
"If you’re a public official in
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?