GREENSBORO — City Council has approved a new ordinance that makes it easier for housing inspectors to enter rental units it suspects are substandard or have multiple safety violations.
The revised law is a streamlined version of a September proposal that would have also given City Council the power to designate areas of the city as “blighted” based on crime and other factors. That would have allowed city inspectors to conduct regular inspections of housing in those areas and bring concentrated efforts to fight crime and other problems.
But the new law, passed by an 8-0 vote at the council’s regular monthly meeting Tuesday, adds language that is closely modeled on a state housing code that allows housing inspectors to look at all the units in an apartment building if they find one major safety violation in one unit. It also gives them the power to conduct periodic inspections of properties that have more than four verified housing code violations in a rolling 12-month period.
The proposal comes after inspectors found hundreds of minimum housing standards violations at the Summit/Cone Apartments on Summit Avenue, where five refugee children died in a fire in May.
Although the fire was blamed on unattended cooking, residents began to publicly complain about bad conditions such as leaking sewer pipes and pest infestations. Inspectors condemned the 42-unit complex, forcing all the families to move out.
Several local housing groups joined with Councilman Justin Outling and city staff to craft the revised ordinance. These groups include the Greensboro Housing Coalition, a housing advocacy, and Triad Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition, which includes the Triad Apartment Association.
But other groups that weren’t invited to help write the ordinance complained at Tuesday’s council meeting that they need more time to consider the merits of the law.
Michael Walker, president of the Greensboro Landlords Association, which represents owners of 7,000 rental units in Greensboro, said his group only learned of the proposal a week ago at a regular meeting.
“There was more confusion after the meeting than there were questions answered. Anytime there is a rule made that is a little bit vague or imposed more strenuous conditions on landlords, that can’t help but be passed on to tenants,” he said, asking for a delay in the council’s vote so his group could further review the proposal.
Nick Scarci, local government affairs director for NC Realtors, said that, likewise, his group needs more time to look at the ordinance.
He said the provision that allows inspectors to enter all the apartments in a multi-family unit if one violation is found may lead to violations of the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens against illegal search and seizure.
Several council members asked questions about similar issues raised by the law, but in the end were persuaded that it is based essentially on expansions of inspection powers granted by an 18-month-old state law that virtually reads the same.
Outling said that the Housing Coalition, TREBIC and Legal Aid of North Carolina have all endorsed the new ordinance and that the city must move with some urgency in the wake of the Summit Avenue tragedy and issues with those apartments.
“We can’t wait until after there’s another tragedy to say, ‘Man I wish we had passed that ordinance three months ago,’” Outling said.
Outling apologized that there wasn’t time to consult more groups, but said “ultimately the Greensboro City Council has to act with a sense of speed.”