Asheville City Council

“Houses don’t cause fires — people do. And inspectors don’t inspect people.”

— Bonnie Bailey, Asheville Apartment Association

And the answer is … keep waiting.

Nine months ago, the Asheville City Council appointed a 21-member task force to consider the issue of mandatory vs. complaint-based inspections of homes in the city. The group was supposed to report back to Council in February; unable to reach a consensus, however, they asked for more time. But that didn’t seem to help, so at Council’s March 18 work session, task-force members opted to toss the matter back in Council members’ laps, presenting two dueling reports.

The long-running debate entered a new stage when Asheville initiated mandatory inspections in 1994 to ensure that houses and apartments in the city are being properly maintained. Continued complaints from groups opposed to the minimum housing code prompted city staff to bring the issue before Council once again.

Under the current system, rental properties must be inspected every five years; owner-occupied, single-family dwellings must be inspected when they’re sold. Inspectors check a lengthy list of items, from the wiring to the roof to whether there are screens on the windows. In apartment complexes, only a specified percentage of the units (which varies depending on the size of the complex) is inspected. The cost of hiring an inspector ranges from $50-$75 per apartment and $125-$150 per house; if repairs are needed, city staff conduct follow-up inspections.

And though task-force members say they’ve reached agreement on some of the fine points, the underlying question remains unresolved: Should residential property be subject to mandatory inspections, or should inspections be triggered by complaints?

Proponents of the current system argue that the dangers of forgoing regular inspections — increased fire hazard and, ultimately, deteriorating homes that can no longer be restored — are simply too big to risk. And in a tight market, they say, renters’ right to decent, safe housing can fall victim to market forces. Housing-code opponents maintain that the inspections reduce the supply of affordable housing, don’t ensure tenant safety, and are too costly for landlords.

The inflammatory issue drew a rarely seen capacity crowd for the work session.

From the outset, it was apparent that the scheduled April 8 public hearing would not allow Council enough time to properly consider the matter.

“I don’t see how we can make that date,” said Mayor Charles Worley.

Speaking for the task force’s majority, Bonnie Bailey of the Asheville Apartment Association (which represents apartment owners, managers and suppliers) argued that the mandatory-inspection system drives up the cost of living in Asheville and isn’t necessary to protect tenants.

“The majority of landlords are protecting their investments,” she asserted, indicating a PowerPoint presentation that branded the inspection fees “Just Another Tax.”

As for safety, Bailey disputed the argument that inspections prevent fires. The decline in local house fires, she maintained, can be attributed to the presence of smoke detectors and a drop in the number of smokers. Besides, said Bailey: “Houses don’t cause fires — people do. And inspectors don’t inspect people.”

Additionally, she noted, there’s already a system in place for handling complaints by tenants and neighbors.

Turning to the city leaders, Bailey said there’s some concern that required inspections could leave the city liable to lawsuits and even speculated that mandatory inspections could be interpreted as violating the Fourth Amendment prohibition of unreasonable searches of private property.

“Is it an illegal search?” she asked ominously. Bailey presented no evidence to back up her assertions.

Real-estate agent Steve Duncan handed out copies of a compromise proposal supported by a majority of task-force members. It calls for a complaint-based system with a “mandatory component … focused on at-risk properties or irresponsible property owners.”

The city, he argued, should go after those problem properties rather than the majority of property owners who do maintain their buildings. The plan calls for an inspection only if evidence warrants it. If violations are found, a re-inspection would be required within 60 months or when the property is sold, whichever comes first.

Duncan also emphasized that The compromise shows that the opposing task-force factions have been working together.

“Newspapers have painted us in two far corners,” he complained, noting, “We’ve worked hard to find middle ground.”

As it became apparent that the anti-mandatory-inspection presenters were exceeding the 15-minute time limit, Council member Carl Mumpower asked that the presentations be allowed to go long because of the importance of the issue. Mayor Worley agreed, saying he wasn’t about to stop the speaker and noting that both sides would be accorded the same privilege. That prompted some discussion on Council, with Worley reminding Council member Holly Jones that the 15-minute limit is a request, not a formal rule.

But when attorney Jim Barrett of Pisgah Legal Services rose to speak on behalf of those favoring mandatory inspections, he said he and his group had scrapped their own PowerPoint presentation because it would have gone over the time limit.

“That’s the problem with changing the rules,” noted Jones.

Barrett, however, didn’t seem too discouraged. In fact, he said that as a lawyer, he would take full advantage of the extra time.

During almost a decade of mandatory inspections, said Barrett, 15,000 houses and apartments have been brought up to code, thereby improving the local housing market.

A complaint-based system, he asserted, won’t work. “It did not work prior to 1994; it does not work in the county,” Barrett declared. “Tenants won’t complain. I know this because I have represented them for 10 years.” Fear of landlord reprisals and the dearth of affordable rentals in Asheville, he said, tend to discourage tenants from speaking up.

In addition, noted Barrett, tenants might not even recognize the early signs of damage that could prove destructive to a home or dangerous to its occupants.

Independent home inspector James Davis, who is certified to do inspections for the city, agreed. “A tenant has to have the knowledge and courage to make a complaint,” said Davis, adding that when he inspects a house, he crawls into areas where tenants and owners rarely go.

And neighbors who complain about nearby houses are typically seeing only the exterior, noted Barrett.

“When properties don’t get inspected until they are dilapidated on the outside, they can’t be saved,” he said.

Housing Code Enforcement Officer Terry Summey commended the task force for exploring the issue and asked Council to give city staff some guidance. But Council, perhaps overwhelmed by the weight of information, wasn’t saying much.

“Are you looking for Council to pick one side?” asked Council member Brian Peterson, adding, “I would much prefer a recommendation from the field.”

Council member Jim Ellis pleaded for more time. “The task force has been at this a year,” he said. “I’m not sure exactly what we are talking about; I need more time to digest this.”

After the meeting, Summey said his office is also collecting information, sifting through stacks of inspection records to get a better idea of how effective the mandatory inspections have been. He’s also tracking down news articles and records from the early 1990s to find out more about what the housing situation was before the advent of mandatory inspections.

“I want to see what brought all this about in the first place,” he explained.

Worley, meanwhile, said Council members will review the task force’s proposals and confer with staff, who will then return with a recommendation. After an as-yet-unscheduled public hearing, Council will make a decision.

Can’t lead a child to water

Tours of the North Fork Water Treatment Facility, a popular field-trip destination for local students, will be suspended for at least the next six months.

Interim Water Resources Director David Hanks recommended the move based on a January “vulnerability assessment” by Brown and Caldwell, a consulting group that specializes in security issues for such facilities.

Due to national-security concerns, the consultants recommended that access to both the North Fork and Mills River water-treatment facilities be limited to necessary personnel. Children and teachers, it turns out, did not make the short list.

Hanks also suggested replacing the tours with an off-site educational exhibit.

If the city chose to continue offering the tours, both Hanks and the consultants recommended conducting background checks on adults (including teachers) who visit the plant. Such checks, he said, cost about $25 to $30 per person.

Council member Joe Dunn supported the moratorium.

“If something happened, it would be a disaster,” he said. Apart from the terrorism threat, he noted, the city would be liable for any injury arising from chemicals in the plant or wildlife in the surrounding area. Dunn added that he’d seen a large timber rattlesnake on his last visit.

“It is dangerous,” he said.

Council member Brian Peterson, however, called the move overkill.

“We’ve been doing this for decades, and we haven’t had a problem,” he said. “This is the second most popular outside tour the kids take.”

As for background checks, Peterson said he thought the schools would conduct a much more thorough check than the city could.

But Council member Carl Mumpower argued that heightened national-security issues make such overkill necessary.

“These are different times,” said Mumpower. “I would rather err on the side of security over the advantages of educational value.”

For his part, Dunn questioned how much educational value the tours have, speculating that fourth-graders would gain little understanding from such a visit.

Council Member Holly Jones disagreed. “Do not underestimate the experiential component,” she urged, adding, “Children learn in a lot of different ways.”

After some discussion, Worley told staff to go ahead and suspend the tours, saying Council will reconsider the question in the fall.

hmmm … ?

This is the second time in four months that David Hanks has acted to dislodge the Water Authority’s conservation-education program: Same goal, different reasons. What’s the logic here? What homeland security risks, specifically, do teachers and students pose to our water supply?

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