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Council passes first reading of new rental housing code

NORTH LIBERTY– The City of North Liberty will add a new role, and a new employee to carry it out, if a proposed housing ordinance passes its next two readings by the City Council.
The ordinance is specific to rental units and the obligations of landlords and tenants. State law requires towns with populations of 15,000 or greater to adopt an ordinance to ensure regular inspections of rental housing and a process for dealing with complaints.
“We are trying to make this a safe community and want the people here, our good neighbors, to stay. I think it’s a great step in the right direction,” said Police Chief Diane Venenga.
North Liberty’s proposed ordinance, modeled closely after those used in Iowa City and Coralville, would require landlords to purchase permits from the city for a fee of $50 per rental building and $12 per rental unit, and renew them annually or when tenants change. In addition, a one-time structural inspection would be required at a cost of $50 per building. With an estimated 540 buildings of rental property containing 1,600 rental units in North Liberty, the city’s anticipated revenue from compliance and permit fees in the first year is $67,000.
The ordinance would also give the city’s building official the right to suspend or revoke a landlord’s rental permit for criminal complaints filed against the property owner, rental occupants, or occupants’ guests. A landlord’s permit would be suspended when a renter receives three or more criminal complaints within a year; not convictions, noted City Attorney Scott Peterson, because the city does not wish to delay suspensions or revocations while waiting for court proceedings.
“This provision goes to a somewhat objective standard that, if these events happen this number of instances, then no other questions need to be asked, the rental permit is suspended.”
Venenga elaborated.
“So are we trying to be more immediate instead about this, or are we going to let it go through the court system, as long as it takes?” Venenga posed to the council.
The ordinance lists a number of offenses that would warrant suspension, including: controlled substances; assault; contributing to delinquency; harboring a runaway child; arson; criminal mischief; burglary; noise; disorderly conduct; and keeping a disorderly house, among others.
The building official may also suspend a landlord’s rental permit if a tenant or tenant’s guest receives three municipal infractions within a year’s time, including citations for nuisance abatement, junk and junk vehicles, failing to maintain weeds and grass, or non-compliance with the city’s housing code limiting the number of occupants in a dwelling.
Permits would be suspended for up to six months. Permits would be revoked for no less than one year for more serious offenses, such as a landlord failing to comply with a suspension, failing to fix a dangerous building, or failing to allow regular inspections.
Inspections are incorporated to safeguard the health, safety and welfare of occupants and the general public. An initial structural inspection would be required, even on existing buildings or for those that are remodeled. A structural compliance certificate must be obtained before a rental permit can be issued.
North Liberty Building Official Tom Palmer gave the example of a single-family home that was previously owner-occupied.
“Let’s say the owner moves and wants to rent that out, and the owners didn’t realize when they finished the basement they had to get a building permit, and they put bedrooms in the basement without egress windows,” Palmer said. “When we come through to do that structural compliance we’d look for those things, and (tell them) before we give (them) a rental permit (they) need to put in egress windows.”
Maintenance inspections would be conducted upon request, on a complaint basis, and on a scheduled program of once every three years.
Council member Terry Donahue asked many questions about the language in the ordinance, and how it would be enforced.
“With the way it is written, we are not playing judge and jury to evict that party?” Donahue asked.
Peterson countered that Iowa law is specific in landlord and tenant responsibilities regarding leases and eviction.
“We are not trying to interject ourselves into that; that’s between the landlord and tenant. We have to be careful about that,” Peterson said. “My guess is there is going to be some gray area or a not-so-bright line, and we’ll have to deal with that. We don’t want to become an advocate for landlord or tenants. If they have issues under the law they go to magistrate court and that’s between those parties and the magistrate.”
Donahue also asked how the ordinance would affect mobile homes.
“That is something we will have to discuss. If they are renting them they are going to have to go through this process,” said Palmer. “But how are we going to handle cases for homes built before HUD standards? That’s a difficult question.”
City Administrator Ryan Heiar acknowledged the ordinance could see some revisions as it is implemented.
“We are diving into new territory here, so even as we bring someone on board, if we see this isn’t working, we will have to bring it back before you folks. We have to be flexible throughout this process,” said Heiar. He did ask the council for permission to move ahead with advertising the inspector position and leasing additional space in the Epley building, where the city offices are located, to expand the building department. The cost of hiring a rental inspector at three-quarters time is projected in next year’s budget at $66,523: $45,898 for salary and benefits, and $20,625 for additional office space, supplies, and vehicle costs.
While Donahue wanted to table the first reading of the ordinance, his motion garnered no second and therefore died. The first reading passed 3-1.
The second reading, including a public hearing and opportunity for citizens to comment, is expected to be held at the council’s next regular meeting on Tuesday, March 25, at 6:30 p.m.