Rental-unit inspections, registration would be required under proposed ordinance

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Editors’s note: Less than a day after this story was published, a spokesman for Cantrell told The Lens that the council member planned to delay introduction of this ordinance.

City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell says she will introduce an ordinance this week that would require many landlords to register their properties with the city and pass an inspection every three years. Although Cantrell plans to bring up the matter at the City Council meeting on Thursday, a number of important details have yet to be decided, such as specific housing standards and the fee for inspections.

About 53 percent of occupied homes in New Orleans are rentals, according to the most recent Census estimate. However, many would be exempt from the registry because it doesn’t apply to owner-occupied properties with one rental, such as a double.*

A draft ordinance, obtained by The Lens on Friday, would create a searchable public database of every rental property in the city covered under the program. The database would contain the property owner’s name, the rental property’s address, any violations or complaints and whether its registration is up to date. The program would be phased in between January 2016 and January 2018, with large apartment buildings and units with recent code violations required to register first.

In order to comply, landlords must submit to an inspection of at least 15 percent of the units on each property once every three years. The units would be randomly selected by the inspector.

One-unit rentals would be subject to inspection and registration if the property owner doesn’t live there.*

The development of this ordinance was news to the head of the Apartment Association of Greater New Orleans, an organization that represents the owners of 36,000 apartment units in the metro area. There are about 78,000 rental units in the the city.

“I don’t want to comment because this is the first I’m hearing about this,” Executive Director Tammy Esponge said Monday afternoon when contacted by The Lens.

Cantrell said her goal is to increase the number of quality rental units in the city.

“Rents have risen dramatically in the last 10 years, but the conditions of the rentals have not even come close to keeping in line with that pace,” she said.

James Perry, director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, which has long pushed for a rental registry and provided input for the proposed ordinance, noted that other cities, including Dallas, Seattle and Los Angeles, as well as the state of Tennessee, have enacted similar programs.

“The basic idea is, think about if you’re going to open up a store that sells widgets on Magazine Street, you have to go through a permitting process,” Perry said. The new law  would apply a similar process to rental housing, he said.

Perry said his group regularly receives complaints about rental units that don’t meet current building codes, but “the process for a renter to deal with that is extremely arduous.”

It’s unclear, however, just what standards would apply under the new registry. The draft says only that a minimum standard of habitability would be “consistent with guidance provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Housing Quality Standards,” used to evaluate public or publicly subsidized housing. The ordinance leaves specific rulemaking up to city Code Enforcement, which would administer the program and hire contractors to perform the inspections. And the draft language leaves questions as to whether inspectors would be evaluating properties based on an entirely separate, and possibly more narrow, set of standards than the city’s general building codes.

“Having systems that are connected and talk to one another — that’s a problem too,” Cantrell said. “They could actually be doing both.”

She said she the final ordinance will contain specific standards for evaluation.

Cantrell said that the Code Enforcement Department, which is already overloaded with thousands of inspections and violations per year, doesn’t currently have the capacity to administer the program. That’s why the program would be phased in over three years.

Cantrell said a fee for the inspection hasn’t been set, but that she intends for it to be nominal so as not to cause rent increases.

At least one other council member has questions about the program.

“I reiterate my position that this ordinance is not ready for introduction next week,” Councilwoman Stacy Head wrote in a Friday email to her colleagues, obtained by The Lens. In the email, Head said she was told only on Thursday that the ordinance was close to complete and was unaware of who was involved in discussions on it. “The lightning speed with which this is moving as well as the apparent insular nature of the discussion is disconcerting.”

Head also objected to a provision that would create a blanket exemption for all publicly subsidized housing.

Cantrell said her goal is to require inspections for all subsidized properties currently not subject to regular inspections.

*Correction: The original version of this post said the ordinance would not apply to owner-occupied properties with one or two rental units; it should have said it would not apply to owner-occupied units with one rental unit. The story has been corrected. (Feb. 2, 2015)

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