Cape officials looking at revised rental inspection program

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Cape Girardeau officials are again looking at implementing a citywide rental inspection program, although this version would require landlords to obtain annual licenses and dictate that they maintain their properties -- inside and out -- in order to keep them.

But those officials were insistent Tuesday that the rough draft of an ordinance that spells out the program is simply a starting point and they intend to seek input from landlords next week that could lead to some changes.

"There's still going to be some edits to it, so it's not done by any means," said assistant city manager Kelly Green, who also heads the city's development services department.

While city officials have worked with some landlords in preparing the draft, Green plans to meet with the Cape Area Landlord Association next Tuesday night to go over the draft ordinance that would prohibit anyone from renting out apartments, single-family homes, duplexes or even a spare bedroom without a municipal license. How much such a license would cost has yet to be determined, Green said, though she noted that would be a major topic at next week's landlord association meeting.

Some of the 24 general requirements of the draft mandate that landlords keep their rental units free of pests, have exterior lighting, functioning toilets, have temperature control, locks, have hot and cold running water, appropriate ventilation and a safe structure. Foundations must be sound, electrical wiring must be safely concealed and walls and roofs must not have holes in them.

Every unit must have a space in which food may be prepared and cooked, a kitchen sink in good working order, a working smoke detector and a working bathtub and shower. Some of the requirements are geared toward tenants -- renters, for example, must keep fixtures and their living areas in a "clean and sanitary condition."

Green said the goal is not to create extra burdens on landlords, but instead to make sure that renters have adequate living facilities.

"There are tenants out there living in conditions that they shouldn't have to live in," Green said.

If the Cape Girardeau City Council eventually adopts such a program, landlords would have six months to apply for a license. The program would be complaint-based, which isn't expected to put an undue drain on city staff, she said. This ordinance would also be the first time inspectors would have ready access to the inside of rental units. Now, city inspectors generally deal with a property's exterior.

No firm figure

Previous versions of the program, which has been debated for several years, called for each unit to be licensed, but Green said careful study showed such a plan made little sense. While numbers have been bandied about -- one former city official estimated the number of rental units at about 5,000 -- Green said the city really has no firm figure on what that number truly is.

"Whichever way you looked at it, it was going to take a lot of staff time to look at every rental unit," Green said. "We know we have a problem in Cape, but we know it's not the majority of landlords. So after looking at it and talking to other landlords, it just felt like the right direction to go. This seems like just a good place to start."

Three or more confirmed complaints or violations could lead to a suspension of the license, which would mean that the landlord could not rent any new units until repairs are made. Penalties also include a possible fine of $50 to $500 a day -- to be decided by a municipal judge -- and possibly up to three months in the city jail.

If the repairs aren't made and a landlord habitually refuses to cooperate with the city, a license could be revoked, which would mean the landlord could not rent any of his or her units and the tenants would have to move out. Green said of all of the provisions, these are the least set in stone. Green said the city is still considering how to get tenants to vacate in such situations, considering the state's strong renter's rights provisions.

Stressing her point again, Green said: "It might look quite a bit different by the time it comes to council."

Green presented the plan to the council at its Monday night work session. Jason Coalter, a member of the association, is one of the landlords who has worked with Green to help draft the ordinance. Coalter told the council the ordinance needs to be strict in order to help weed out some of the landlords who don't keep up their property.

"They make us all look bad," Coalter said. "This ordinance needs to have some teeth."

But other members of the association said Tuesday that, while not necessarily opposed, they do have some questions about the draft. David Soto, an association member and also the president of the Cape Girardeau Board of Realtors, worries that it may be too strict. The ordinance specifies, for example, how many electrical outlets needs to be in each room, Soto said.

"I'm not sure what that has to do with a good inspection program," he said. "That's not a quality or a safety issue. I don't know the reason for that."

He also wondered how city officials would determine who was keeping the property clean and sanitary. The ordinance calls for both landlord and tenant to provide upkeep. If a property is dirty, Soto wondered, would the city automatically cite the landlord without knowing who caused the problem?

"There may be too much oversight," Soto said.

Still, Mayor Harry Rediger said he was pleased with the plan as a first step and he hopes some version of it can be finalized and in place within the next 60 days.

"It's time," Rediger said. "It's time to get something done."


Pertinent address:

401 Independence St., Cape Girardeau, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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