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Rental property inspections draw heat at town hall

Rental property inspections draw heat at town hall

January 11th, 2018 by Jenny Gray in Local News

Linda Rootes, left, representing Central Missouri Community Action Taskforce for Safe and Responsible Housing, chats with Fulton City Councilwoman Bev Gray Tuesday during a town hall meeting. The discussion about proposed rental housing inspections on properties within city limits lasted more than an hour.

Photo by Jenny Gray /Fulton Sun.

While some Fulton landlords have spoken out against a proposed rental property inspection program within city limits, the discussion is not over.

About 35 owners of Fulton rentals came to about City Council chambers Tuesday for a town hall meeting to discuss this proposal. The gathering was sometimes heated, with one person calling City Administrator Bill Johnson an "S.O.B." over a separate issue.

Council members were also told it "wasn't their job" to dabble in rental property inspections, but several disagreed, countering the protection of residents is the council's business.

Landlord Andy Hewitt spoke stridently against the proposal.

"If you want the city of Fulton involved in your business, you're crazy," he said. "I just don't understand why you want to mess with this. I'm totally against it, in case you can't figure it out."

Randy Wright, the state's new director of marketing and tourism, said he recently moved into a second-story apartment in downtown Fulton, a former attorney's office. While there used to be two entrances/exits, the back staircase is now blocked off.

"There is one point of egress," he said. "What happens to those properties? Would historical (properties) get a grandfather clause? Would I have to vacate the property while (additional egress) is put in?"

Shawn Edgar, of Fulton, said he owns 15 rental units, both residential and commercial.

"What we don't hear is what's spearheading this. I know Columbia has this, but there's 100,000 people there," he said. "In my opinion, is there a situation that needs to be addressed?"

He also mentioned the tension in the room.

"We've got a room full of stubborn people here," Edgar said. "I don't think a lot of the council is hell-bent on making this happen."

He also said people choose to live where they want.

"We all have choices," Edgar added. "We get into situations every day because of our choices."

He also said good landlords keep their properties in good condition and are in the business for the long-term investment aspect.

"I think it's our responsibility to keep them up," Edgar said. "Our insurance companies come through once a year they come and make annual inspections."

While the federal department of Housing and Urban Development provides a list of standards, known as basic Housing Quality Standards, Fulton council members have been referencing a list provided by the city of Moberly (which has a population close to 14,000 people) used by fire department officials.

The list of considered inspection items include grounded electrical outlets in kitchens and bathrooms and covers on electrical switches and outlets, operating cold and hot water sources, operable windows that are not broken or cracked, furnaces capable of maintaining 68 degrees, and more.

Councilman Mike West, who announced he will not be seeking re-election, said he and his son had negative experiences with two rental properties. One of his son's rentals had holes in the front porch decking, and when a water heater broke, it was not fixed for several months.

"I know one or two (landlords) ruin it for everybody," Edgar said.

Also at the gathering was Linda Rootes, representing Central Missouri Community Action Taskforce for Safe and Affordable Housing.

"We're familiar with rental inspections in Columbia," she said. "Even responsible landlords have things that need to be repaired. Some of the arguments I've heard tonight do not hold water."

One such argument, she said, is renters living in substandard housing can "just move."

"It costs a lot of money to move," she said. "I think to blame the residents, especially low-income residents, is a bad thing."

She also said rental prices are as high as the market will allow.

"I am very much in favor of moving forward with this," Rootes told the City Council. "Actually, the task force had just decided to do something like this public meeting."

The task force is meeting next Wednesday to discuss the issue further, Rootes added.

Mary Rehklau, Jeffery Stone and some other council members tried to ease tensions by saying they were there to get input.

"Basically, what we're here for is to find out what we can do to make it a little safer," Rehklau said.

"We've got people who say they can't complain, 'I'll get in trouble with my landlord,'" Stone added.

Some people, according to Stone, said their rentals have dangerous conditions such as exposed wiring and holes in the roof and floor, and they don't feel safe.

"What can we all do as a community?" Stone asked.

The state has a list of tenant rights within the Missouri Landlord-Tenant Law. Learn more at hud.gov/states/missouri/renting/tenantrights.

"This is the first step, and whether the council goes forward or not, we'll make it public," Mayor LeRoy Benton said. "We'll make sure it's out there on the website."

Later, during the council's regular meeting following the town hall, the City Council brought up the issue again and asked Fire Chief Kevin Coffelt to talk to Moberly fire officials more in depth about how they handle inspections. Coffelt has already been in touch with that fire department's Chief George Albert and gathered some basic information, he said.

"Last year, they inspected 800 rental properties; a lot were re-inspections," Coffelt said. "They did put an inspector on day shift."

West added he's not sure how to proceed.

"Tonight was very educational," he said. "I'm in a quandary what to do."

Benton said he would reach out to Rootes to create more dialogue.