How do you create a tough housing code without stifling affordable housing?
Tweak the existing Asheville Minimum Housing Code, for starters. On May 25, City Council members will consider several amendments to the code, enacted in 1994. Some of the suggested changes come from a focus group of city staff, property owners and affordable-housing advocates; and most of the changes deal specifically with residential rental units, said Asheville Building Safety Director Terry Summey, presenting a draft of the revised code to City Council members at their May 4 work session.
One of the key revisions, Summey reported, involves penalizing landlords who don’t get their residential units inspected by the July 1, 1999 deadline set in the housing code: If Council approved the focus-group recommendation, those property owners would be charged an administrative fee of $100 per unit inspected post-deadline; starting next January, the city would tack on an additional $20-per-month penalty. Landlords who met the deadline and whose properties passed the initial inspection, on the other hand, would have the current $20 housing-certificate fee waived, Summey explained. And landlords who could show that their rental units have been regularly inspected and have met housing-code requirements would have fewer units inspected, which would reduce their inspection fees. These landlords would also pay reduced fees for related permits (building, electrical, mechanical and plumbing).
“The message to landowners: Get your inspection, and get it soon, or it’s going to cost you,” Summey summarized.
“We’re not asking property owners … much,” said Council member Barbara Field, listing the basic requirements rental properties must meet, such as having a roof, an adequate heating system and good plumbing. “This is a good policy,” she insisted, stressing the incentives for good landlords and the penalties for those who don’t comply. The catch is, the city must enforce it, Field pointed out.
To that end, Summey noted another proposed change: Hiring an additional city inspector, plus support staff (a research assistant and secretary). The city now employs three housing-code inspectors and has trained about 20 independent inspectors.
Other proposed changes in the code include correcting typographical errors in the document, adjusting it to reflect changes in the state code, and correcting potential safety issues, Summey noted. For example, one proposed amendment would require residential-property owners who install window security bars or gates to include quick-release devices for emergency escape, in the event of a fire or other disaster. In addition, the revision would continue the current policy of denying water turn-ons until the landlord has satisfied the housing-code requirements, Summey indicated.
He recommended that Council set May 25 as a public hearing date to consider the revisions.
Mayor Leni Sitnick asked if the revised code would be affected by the international building-safety code that’s expected to take effect next year.
Summey replied that it wouldn’t — except, perhaps, for the state requirement that buildings have a second fire exit. The international code allows more alternative methods to ensure fire safety. (Council has asked state legislators to postpone enforcement of the rule, in anticipation of the international code, and also to allow time to consider the impact of the requirement on Asheville property owners).
“How do you enforce this?” queried Council member Earl Cobb. “Do you follow up, after an inspection?”
After a property fails an inspection, the owner has 90 days to bring it into compliance, said Summey, and city staff monitors the progress. “We have some that don’t [comply],” he noted. Of the 2,200 homes inspected in the last two years, more than a third (800) have yet to be brought up to code, Summey mentioned.
Field commented, “Some have said: Be innovative. But in this country, having a housing code that you enforce is considered innovative.”