Some Richmond landlords and property owners have expressed skepticism over a proposed rental inspection program that would target building-code violations in certain city neighborhoods.
Councilmen Parker Agelasto (5th District), Charles Samuels (2nd District) and John Baliles (1st District) introduced a resolution in late July asking Mayor Dwight Jones’ administration to create a rental inspection program for the city. Yet to be determined are the areas, or inspection districts, the program would cover, as well as how the city would pay for it. While an actual ordinance likely won’t be proposed until the end of the year, some stakeholders are already questioning the city’s need for an inspection program.
“There are some problem owners, but there are plenty who do a great job and take care of their tenants and are always in compliance with local building code,” says Laura Lafayette, CEO of the Richmond Association of Realtors. “We don’t want to see an ordinance that ensnares the people who are doing the right thing just to go after the bad apples.”
About 56 percent of the city’s households are rental units, according to 2010 Census data.
An initial report by the Richmond Times-Dispatch suggested the inspection program would target the Fan, Oregon Hill, Carver and Jackson Ward, where many college students rent.
“It feels a little bit discriminatory, picking selected districts and not enforcing it across the city, focusing on student-heavy, historic neighborhoods,” says Lynn Burris, president of the Richmond Apartment Owners Association. Her family’s company, Ackman Realty, owns properties in those neighborhoods, she adds.
Such a program could cover more neighborhoods if the administration recommends it, Agelasto says. He adds that he envisions the program targeting neighborhoods with a large population of renters, a high number of complaints and aging housing.
Similar rental inspection programs exist in nearly two dozen other localities in the state, including Petersburg, Hopewell and Williamsburg.
Williamsburg’s process in particular provided a model for Agelasto. The area has two inspectors, and its program covers about 450 rental units in select districts, says Matt Westheimer, a Williamsburg code compliance administrator. Landlords are charged $50 for an initial inspection. If inspectors find no building code violations, the city doesn’t inspect the property for four years. If violations are discovered, inspectors allow a landlord a set number of days to correct them, then return to re-inspect the property. If subsequent inspections reveal the landlord has not remedied the issues, the city can charge them another $50, Westheimer says. Compliance isn’t normally an issue, he adds.
“There’s a few [landlords] that get upset about it, but in general, most of them are very willing to comply because they know it benefits them as well,” Westheimer says.
Councilman Agelasto is banking on Richmond’s landlords having a similar realization. He says a rental inspection program wouldn’t punish landlords already in compliance with city code. Instead, it would help preserve rental properties “at risk of deteriorating” and protect inexperienced (and often young) tenants who may not know their rights, he adds.
“Good landlords don’t have an issue with this,” Agelasto says. “It’s the ones who do who make you wonder why they would be so opposed to an inspection program that would mean their tenants would have a better quality of life.”
For Lafayette and Burris, supporting the program will come down to how it’s funded.
“If [the program] has to pay for itself, that’s going to be a problem,” Lafayette says. “If you create a program that becomes a tax on landlords, that’s going to be problematic.”
City Council’s next meeting is scheduled for Sept. 8.