Rental-license program a good start, officials say

Monday, May 5, 2014

It's been a little more than a year since the Cape Girardeau City Council approved the rental-licensing ordinance. While it's been a success in many ways, some involved in the city's rental system say there's still plenty of room for improvement.

After multiple meetings between city officials and landlords to determine the language and parameters of the ordinance, the city established the rental-licensing program last year. It mandates landlords purchase annual licenses to rent property and requires maintenance and cleanliness of properties from landlords and tenants.

Complaints from either party or outside parties are investigated by a city inspector and if evidence of violations is found, citations are issued. Multiple violations of the ordinance could lead to fines and suspension of a license.

The license registration and renewal fee is $50 for one to five units and $100 for six or more. Landlords have a 30-day grace period to renew the license once they reach the end of their one year. From day 31 to day 60, a $10 late fee is assessed in addition to renewal charges, and from day 61 to 90, the late penalty is $20.

The license expires if it is not renewed in that 90-day period and a new application must be completed to obtain a license.

As of April 1, 695 residential rental licenses had been issued and 6,408 units were registered, according to data provided by the city of Cape Girardeau. Figures were not provided for the total number of rental units in the city, which could range from a single-family home, apartment, duplex or just a spare bedroom.

The figures are larger than city estimates from March 2013 that pegged the numbers at 550 rental property owners and about 5,000 rental units within city limits.

Numbers for complaints, citations and suspensions also were not provided by the Inspection Services Department.

Tim Morgan, director of Inspection Services for Cape Girardeau, said one of the biggest benefits of the program is it helps the city track each of the rental properties. Before, the staff had to guess who owned the properties and how many units each contained, but now those numbers are reported annually when landlords purchase and renew their licenses.

Another bonus is the new methods for tenants and landlords to file complaints. Before the ordinance, a complaint had to be filed in writing, in person at city hall -- a method not popular among tenants who preferred to remain anonymous. Now complaints can be filed in person or via phone or online submission.

"However they can get the information or complaint to us is acceptable," Morgan said. "They can remain anonymous now if they want to."

While this has helped keep more landlords and tenants in compliance, the few who violate and ignore the rules remain.

Changes, clarification

Assistant city manager Molly Hood said city staffers plan to address the Cape Girardeau City Council this summer about adopting changes to the ordinance for clarification and to increase safety. They also would like to include in the ordinance the power for inspectors to examine multiple units owned by one landlord if an "egregious violation" is discovered in one unit.

Under the current ordinance, city inspectors only can inspect a unit or property after receiving a complaint from a tenant or landlord.

The need for this change was discovered after tenants contacted the city and complained they were waking up with headaches. An inspection of the unit revealed improper venting from a gas heater.

"So in a situation like that, if it were a multiunit building and we found something egregious like that, we would be able to go into other units in the building to make sure that violation wasn't being repeated in all of the units," Hood said.

She said the suggestions would be brought before the council sometime in June and it is hoped changes would be adopted by August.

But overall, Morgan said the program has been a success and helped identify issues that might not otherwise have come to the city's attention. It also requires tenants and landlords to take their share of responsibility for issues such as maintenance.

Jason Coalter of Coalter and Felty Investments is the vice president of the Cape Area Landlord Association. As one of the landlords who worked with the city on the ordinance before it took effect, he said that was one aspect he truly appreciated.

"The great thing about the program is the city's been very intelligent in holding the tenants accountable," he said. "So between the landlords who do what they're supposed to do and manage their properties in the right way, they keep training tenants to be more accountable and the city has followed that initiative as well. ... So it's not just a one-sided ordinance, which is good for our community, I believe."

Room for improvement

Considering the program is only about a year old, Coalter said it's done very well, but could use some improvements. He would like to see more "intensity" in handling those who are knowingly violating the ordinance.

"The people that want to not follow the system or not follow the rules, they've been able to be evasive because the sanctions haven't been severe enough maybe, or quick enough to get results," he said. "So if you're somebody who's intentionally evading the rules -- I'm not saying you're getting a pass, but basically the time in which it takes for you to respond or have to be compliant, the penalty's not very steep. The more we push those that are trying to hurt our community, the better our community will be."

According to the program's complaint procedure, inspectors give a specific deadline that's typically between 14 to 30 days to correct any violations. An extension of up to 14 days may be granted if the majority of the violations are corrected by the deadline. If none or few of the violations are corrected, the inspector refers the complaint to Morgan, the inspection services director, for review to determine if legal action should be initiated.

Ultimately, Coalter said the ordinance needs more "teeth," but he believes the changes city staffers plan to propose to the council are "a really good start" either to have landlords come into compliance or stop renting properties in the community.

srinehart@semissourian.com

388-3641

Pertinent address:

Cape Girardeau, Mo.

Map of pertinent addresses

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