City of South Bend to propose rental housing inspections
By Jeff Parrott South Bend Tribune
SOUTH BEND — Last year Cassandra Shines said she and her three young children rented a house in the city’s near northwest neighborhood that had bed bugs, roaches, mice, black mold and clogged sinks.
Her landlord said he would send someone out to address the problems but never did. Later, the property changed ownership twice within a year, and she couldn’t figure out whom to call. She has since moved and Code Enforcement has placed the house under a vacate and seal order.
Shines said she was happy to hear that the city of South Bend is proposing a new program that will require all rental housing to pass safety and health inspections before tenants can move in.
“People shouldn’t have to get done like that from slumlords,” Shines said. “It’s not right, when they can use their money to get somewhere and live comfortably.”
The city administration plans to introduce a bill creating the program to the common council Monday for first reading. The council hasn’t yet released a draft of the bill.
Code Enforcement has long inspected rentals after receiving complaints from tenants, but many tenants fear complaining will bring retribution from landlords — in a city that has the 18th-highest eviction rate among the nation’s 309 cities with populations over 100,000, according to the administration’s written plan for the program.
In 2017 Code Enforcement responded to 612 complaints of substandard rental conditions, including lack of utilities, structural damage, mold, infestation, water leaking and odors. But with about 16,000 rental units in the city, the administration believes many unsafe situations are probably going unreported.
Richard C. Taylor, president of Real Estate Investors Association of North Central Indiana, expressed conflicting views when asked Tuesday about the rental inspection proposal.
“Most of the landlords that I deal with in the Real Estate Investors Association are good landlords,” said Taylor, who said he once owned 30 rentals but has scaled down to eight. “They try to take care of their properties. Yeah, they get a little behind when multiple things happen and they have to prioritize things but they catch up.”
Once a home passes inspection, conducted by Code Enforcement inspectors or state-licensed inspectors that landlords hire, the city would issue an inspection report and certificate of rental occupancy window sticker, verifying that the unit is safe and habitable and can legally be rented to a tenant, according to the plan.
To give owners time to make repairs, a four-month voluntary enrollment period would immediately follow council passage of the ordinance. During that time, landlords and property managers who request an inspection would be rewarded with an extra year on their occupancy certificate, as well as preference for city housing repair or lead remediation funding.
Removing flaking lead paint or lead dust in older homes would be a major focus. After the voluntary period, the program would target areas for inspection based on census tracts. The first round of inspection notices would be sent to Census Tract 6, a triangular-shaped area on the city’s near northwest side bounded by Lincoln Way to the south, Portage Avenue to the north and Diamond Avenue to the northwest, where poverty rates are highest and children have recorded the highest blood lead levels. Landlords or property managers in that tract would be required to schedule inspections.
The goal is to inspect 20 percent of the city’s rental units in the first three years.
The city administration has been working on the program since the fall of 2017, and won common council approval in the 2018 budget for $180,000 to hire, train and equip two new inspectors, along with a new revenue-neutral program administrator position in this year’s budget.
Suzanna Fritzberg, Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s deputy chief of staff, said Code Enforcement has recently restructured its staff to also free up other inspectors to help with the work.
Fritzberg said the program creates no new laws for housing standards but it gives the city more power to enforce state and local laws already on the books.
“Code Enforcement data has demonstrated that we have a high number of properties that don’t meet basic safety and health standards in Indiana law,” Fritzberg said, “along with the focus on lead that has emerged over the last year and a half.”
The program comes two years after the council and Buttigieg enacted an ordinance requiring landlords to register their names and addresses with the city, because Code Enforcement has such difficulty identifying the owners of problem properties, many of which are titled to limited liability corporations. But the landlord registration program has become voluntary while the city awaits the outcome of a legal case in Hammond challenging the legality of such programs.
Taylor said he recognizes the need to remove lead paint that’s peeling or flaking to protect children, and he said some landlords who don’t belong to the association are negligent.
“I don’t like the inspections,” he said. “I think they’re a necessary evil at this point. I wish the people that are living in those homes that have flaking lead paint would be able to just move out and go someplace where there’s not any flaking lead paint. The landlords would have to start cleaning up their act and the marketplace would force them to do that.”
But Taylor said sometimes problems are cause by tenants who damage housing, or fail to report problems to their landlords until they worsen and ultimately cost the landlord more than they should have to address.
“Frankly, some of these low-end houses that have problems, it’s people that have low credit and bad payment history that get accepted because they aren’t accepted anyplace else,” he said. “It’s part of the whole problem of responsibility for individuals. If they’re not going to pay their rent, they can’t find a way to get into nice housing, so they have to take what they can get. They don’t like it so they don’t take care of what they got, and it just gets worse.”
The program would fine landlords for failing inspections a third time, and for renting to tenants without a certificate of rental occupancy.
Taylor said he also worries about the subjectivity inherent in people doing the inspections, and he wonders how landlords will have a clear understanding of standards that must be met. Fritzberg said those standards will be posted on the city’s website.
“We want to make sure we’re not being set up for failure here,” Taylor said. “There’s a lot of money involved in this. If they interfere with the ability of the owners to make money, they won’t have the money to make repairs.”