Town to re-start Rental Inspection, Vacant Building Registry programs

The Town of Pulaski will soon start back up its dormant Rental Inspection Program and Vacant Building Registry.

Council voted unanimously to do so Tuesday evening at its monthly work session.

Town Manager Darlene Burcham reminded council that several meetings ago she had presented portions of the town code concerning two programs involving property in three areas of the town.

She said some years ago council identified the three areas where it would conduct a Rental Inspection Program and a Vacant Building Registry, and named them West Loop Re-development District, Downtown Conservation Area and the Southeast Crescent Re-development District.

Burcham told council there has not been a consistent use of either of the programs, but in her opinion, they are vitally necessary to ensure the safety of people living in the town’s older structures, particularly those with frequent turnover through rental activity.

“I believe even as we are reaching to secure new housing of various types in the community, we have a responsibility to look at our existing housing stock, many of which have some significant age on them,” Burcham told council.

She noted the two programs could potentially be coupled with a third that would involve some state funding that could be made available to the town.

“If obtained, this funding would allow us to engage the services of someone to actually acquire, rehabilitate or demolish and build new houses once they have been identified as being structurally inadequate,” Burcham explained.

She said the goal of both the Rental Inspection Program and the Vacant Building Registry is to get current owners to keep their properties in a presentable condition.

“In the case of the vacant property registry you make the owner aware we are interested in what is happening to the condition of their property – even as they are vacant – because many vacant properties deteriorate more rapidly than if they are occupied.

“The rental inspection program – again limited to property in these conservation and rehabilitation districts – would ensure the individuals who rent properties in these areas are living in safe conditions. The checklist used for that is similar to that used for a Section Eight inspection.

“I would like council to indicate if you are interested in continuing these programs or ‘re-invigorate’ the programs,” Burcham continued.

She said the town would use existing staff to move into these programs after a compilation of addresses and notification of property owners – giving them some reasonable time as well as town staff to get acclimated with the programs.

“I believe what’s on the books we need to enforce, or we need to remove it from the books (town code),” she added.

Councilman Michael Reis asked if the town would keep the three districts already established or make the programs town-wide.

“We can’t make them town-wide. State code doesn’t allow that,” Burcham said. “You have to create districts.”

Burcham suggested conducting the programs in one of the three districts the first year, move to a second one the next year and then the third.

“You can put them on a four-year cycle meaning the fourth year you would go back. And there are probably other areas that should be looked at for possible designation. Council would actually make a ruling that a particular part of the town designated by street and block either has deteriorated or is in the process of deteriorating and has a significant number of rental properties. Under that determination the council can then create as many districts as you want,” she said.

Burcham said it would be 60 to 90 days before full implementation of the programs, and that time would be used to do the data collection needed to administer them properly and give staff time to conduct an education program.

Burcham said it is not unusual when a rental inspection program is established that you have pushback from landlords.

“My experience is that a year into the program the landlords will tell you it isn’t as bad as they anticipated,” Burcham said. “There’s uncertainty and the unknown is frightening to all of us, so I would expect that we would move into it slowly and that’s why I believe we should start with one of the three districts then move forward. That also makes it manageable from a staff standpoint.”

Councilman Greg East recalled the establishment of the rental inspection and vacant property registration programs.

“Don’t believe rental inspection ever gained traction due to manpower issues. The intention was certainly there. Vacant building registration had to do with our having at least one building collapse. There were vacant buildings that no one were looking at. I think the programs are good and agree with your approach,” he said.

Burcham said administration of the programs would fall under code enforcement.

“There might be other items that you might identify during inspection that have to do with other sections of the code.”

Responding to a question from Councilman Brooks Dawson, Burcham said when a rental property is inspected and it passes, the landlord would get a certificate showing the property is good for four years unless the town gets a complaint.

“Through the process of doing the inspection the tenant is aware of the fact they can bring concerns to the town. I read over the weekend (on social media) someone had a complaint that a landlord was not fixing a water leak and the tenant was having a significant water bill. It’s that type of thing we could better respond to because [with the rental inspection program] we have some teeth to it.

“We can’t do anything about making the landlord fix the leak, but we can tell the tenant the other sources they can go to to get that relief,” Burcham said.

“I think this should be a priority,” East said. “When it was discussed before we said we have a beautiful town with a lot of possibilities. The idea was you raise your neighborhoods by addressing these types of issues, like having dilapidated properties and people living in them as well an in properties that maybe aren’t livable. By addressing that you address a number of problems along with that as well. It has potential long term to raise property values and draw more investment,” he said.

Burcham said that in many communities you have a landlord that owns properties throughout the community, not just a single property.

“What we found is once you identify the program and where you are going to start, it caused some landlords to begin working on other properties because they knew you were coming. It was just a question of when. Once they understand council supports it and would stand behind it, it has positive effects.

“Some people will see the checklist and see what they need to do and decide they just won’t rent it again. That’s certainly their choice. Then it comes under the vacant building registration,” Burcham explained.

In that situation, Burcham said there’s a concern as to where does that tenant can go?

“I think we have enough housing in our town currently that people can find another place. But I think we also have an obligation to our public to make sure they are in safe housing. And we can’t say that today because we don’t have this type of program.

“I think when people see what you’re doing they understand. For instance, if there isn’t a handrail going up a set of stairs, that is a safety issue. We’re looking at the safety of individuals. Not that they’re living in a palace or anything else, but if they have an adequate heat source, light source, smoke detectors, things that are life safety,” Burcham said.

Dawson noted that the town could possibly promote the fact it has rental inspections and draw more people to live here.

In the end, Reis made the motion to re-invigorate the programs with East offering a second. The motion passed 6-0.

By MIKE WILLIAMS, The Patriot