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Rental Inspections

What's Wrong With Rental Inspections?

by Deborah Morris

At first glance, the idea of inspecting rental houses to make sure they're safe and sanitary sounds reasonable. We're all in favor of ridding the city of slumlords and substandard housing, right?

Ah, but there's the rub. When the City of Garland passed into law Ordinance 5895 Chapter 32 in April 2005, setting up an elaborate rental registration and inspection program, it was on the naive assumption that the slumlords who owned the city's own estimate of 150 - 300 unsafe/unsanitary properties (out of an estimated 6000 or 7000 total rental properties in Garland) would meekly register their properties, pay the $65 per house annual permit fee, then clean up their acts once the inspectors cited their blighted properties.

To nobody's great surprise--except the Garland City Council's--the program failed so comprehensively that no one, not even the City Council and Code Compliance Department, could deny it at the April 17, 2007 public hearing. Many of the approximately 1,800 landlords who immediately registered their rental properties and paid their permit fees were repeatedly harassed by inspectors (as were their tenants) over minor or cosmetic problems and forced to spend significant amounts of money to maintain their rental permits. In the program's second year, registrations dropped by 40%.

Many tenants were also less than thrilled to learn that their landlords had been forced to provide what they had considered confidential information to the city on the registration application, including the tenants' names, driver's license numbers, birth dates, # of children under 18, home phone, work phones, cell phones, and email addresses.

A class-action lawsuit on behalf of all owners and tenants of single-family residential property in Garland (Roy Dearmore et all V. City of Garland, Nov 2005) resulted in a U.S. District Court ruling that the program's warrantless demands for entry into privately owned homes was unconstitutional, with U.S. District Judge Sam Lindsay writing:

"Inspections and searches of unoccupied property would clearly infringe on the property owner's right under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. In these limited situations, where the property is unoccupied, the protections guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution outweigh any interest that the government has in protecting the health, safety or welfare of the public. If it becomes necessary to inspect unoccupied properties, the City could readily, with a modicum of effort, obtain an administrative search warrant to inspect any property that may pose a danger to the public."

Despite that ruling and the City's subsequent loss of a Dec 2005 motion to amend which earned a scathing rebuke from Judge Lindsay (who wrote that the City's argument was "fundamentally flawed, disingenius, and reflects 'dirty pool' on the part of the City"), the City Council, notably Laura Perkins Cox, and the Code Compliance Department continues to seek a way around the ruling. Their battle cry at the April 17th public hearing was, "We've got to get into those houses!"

The blue-ribbon panel appointed by the City strongly advised that the City immediately stop inspecting rental houses until it can ensure that all rental property owners are identified and registered. To that end, I suspect a witch-hunt will soon be underway that will involve cross-referencing utility records and property owners' names among other things.

The bottom line? Given the City's own estimates that only 2% - 5% of rental properties in Garland are in unsafe or unsanitary condition (despite the high failure rate of admittedly "good properties" due to the City's unrealistic inspection standards), this seems to be the proverbial case of using an elephant gun to shoot a flea. At best it's misguided; at worst it's governmental abuse.

In addition, all homeowners in Garland should take note: once you start permitting governmental intrusion into private residences, you're opening the door for the kinds of excesses seen in New Hampshire where a state law is being used to intimidate homeowners into allowing tax assessors to enter their homes to determine their property value. Following the line of reasoning offered by one Garland City Council member at the last hearing that "rental houses are businesses, not private residences" (and therefore should be subject to the same kind of inspections as restaurants), we could also end up facing the same question addressed on the City of Baton Rouge's website suggesting that rental house "businesses" shouldn't be allowed in neighborhoods zoned residential.

My husband and I had planned to build a new house in Garland next year and to rent our current 5-bedroom home rather than sell it, to provide an ongoing supplemental income upon our retirement. Unfortunately, our $150,000+ home wouldn't pass the 61-point rental house inspection in Garland due to various minor cosmetic and common older-home flaws that we've chosen to live with rather than spend money to repair. Homeowners are allowed to make judgments like that--and I believe tenants should have that same right by way of choosing what level of imperfection they're willing to live with for the rent (barring genuine safety hazards which are already addressed by City Code). The higher rents necessitated by unrealistically high rental housing standards will drive renters (and landlords) out of Garland -- which might be exactly what some of the loudest proponents of this program have in mind.

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