Asheville City Council

Say you’re sorry (in a nice way, of course), bring lots of supporters to argue your case, and maybe, just maybe, Asheville City Council will give you a break.

On May 25, Council members gave “good” landlords until Oct. 1 to correct housing-code violations, provided that they get their properties inspected before the July 1 deadline set by the city’s 1994 Minimum Housing Code. If landlords meet that deadline, they won’t be charged the $100 penalty fee for getting each unit certified.

Council members also adopted a number of revisions to the code: Landlords who pass their initial inspection will have the $20 housing-inspection fee waived; security-barred windows in sleeping areas must have safety-release latches; and landlords who fail to get their properties inspected or make required repairs will face stiffer penalties.

“It’s our fault,” confessed property manager Tom Leslie, pleading the case of “sincere” landlords who plan to comply with the code but have waited till the last minute to get inspections. The resulting time crunch, Leslie reported, means that he and other managers are finding it difficult to get contractors — particularly electricians — to do needed repair work before the July 1 deadline. If the corrections aren’t life-threatening, perhaps Council could give landlords a four- to eight-week grace period for bringing those units up to code (and, thus, avoid paying the new $100-per-unit housing-certificate fee levied for missing the deadline), Leslie suggested.

“We’ll get inspected by July 1, but correcting minor problems takes time,” he explained.

Other property managers echoed Leslie’s plea. Molly Sandridge said her electrician “keeps telling me he’s going to come this week.” But he doesn’t.

And Betty Crawford admitted, “We have procrastinated,” as she asked for a 90-days grace period.

Former county inspector Ron Fulton reported that he is an electrican …

“Somebody grab him!” joked Mayor Lennie Sitnick.

Fulton recommended that Council schedule the inspections one area at a time, claiming that would help inspectors and contractors get the work done.

Meanwhile, local housing advocates steered the discussion back to the heart of the matter: The latest housing-code revisions — including the stiffer penalties — are intended to protect tenants by getting landlords to repair collapsed floors and leaky roofs and clear out rat infestations. “The time has come … for the city to be firm,” declared attorney David Nash, who has represented tenants seeking redress through Pisgah Legal Services.

“The safety and well-being of the children and our citizens … is more important than the almighty dollar,” proclaimed Asheville resident Geraldine Melendez.

Tenant Joseph Smith — so nervous as he stood before Council that he could barely get his point across — reported that he had just moved out of a unit whose bathroom floor was caving in.

Giving the discussion a philosophical twist, landlord J.T. Black said the mandated inspections violate landlords’ constitutional rights against “unreasonable search and seizure” without “probable cause.” He urged Council to adopt a complaint-driven inspection policy.

Another local landlord, however, reported that the inspections actually benefit his business, helping him document property damage done by tenants.

But property owner Mike Summey blamed Council’s housing-code policies and other city ordinances for skyrocketing rents that are beyond the reach of Asheville’s poor. Summey said he now charges every tenant a $10 per month surcharge, to cover the cost of meeting city regulations. Summey also noted that — although he is now seeking to comply with the housing code — when he first heard about the inspection policies, he had said to himself, “‘To hell with it! I’m going to jail before I deal with it!'” Summey also told Council, “You’re running the cost of rents through the roof.”

Council member Barbara Field, however, pointed out that Summey’s $10-per-month surcharge adds up to considerably more than the $90-per-unit inspection fee he reported being charged recently; and the inspection is good for several years.

“Amen!” called out someone in the audience.

Former public-housing tenant John Hayes — who is now president of the Asheville chapter of the NAACP and director of the Hillcrest Enrichment Center — mentioned that, like Smith, he has firsthand experience with getting a bad landlord to fix problems. “I’m one who will speak up; there are hundreds who won’t.” Hayes urged Council to pass the revised code and the penalties for late inspections. “They [the landlords] procrastinated. If I did, I’d be out … [and] the door padlocked. Let [them] know how it feels.”

But Bonnie Bailey, representing the Greater Asheville Apartment Association, asked Council to give good landlords a break. “Every renter should have safe, affordable housing in the city — or anywhere in the state,” she maintained. “But [good landlords] should not have to bear the burden of the cost of inspection.”

One of the revisions entails waiving one $20 fee for landlords who pass their initial housing-code inspection. Said Field, “If you do a good job, you should be rewarded in some way.”

Vice Mayor Ed Hay noted that the purpose of the code is to get all housing units in the city inspected and substandard ones fixed — not to severely punish good landlords. All the same, he said he doesn’t want to send the message that Council isn’t going to enforce the code. Some landlords admitted to waiting till the last minute, to see what Council would do. The 90-day grace period, Hay remarked, makes sense to him.

Hay made a motion to adopt the revisions; seconded by Field, it passed 6-0 (Council member O.T. Tomes was absent). In a second motion, Hay recommended granting a 90-day grace period for repairs to landlords who meet the July 1 inspection deadline. Seconded by Earl Cobb, it passed 6-0.

“We have a moral responsiblity,” Cobb observed.

Sidewalk philosophy 101

How should the city fund new-sidewalk construction? According to City Manager Jim Westbrook, “Let growth pay for itself.”

That means making developers install sidewalks when they expand existing structures or build new ones, and Asheville City Council supports the theory: On May 25, they adopted a Pedestrian Thoroughfare Plan which, among many things, paves the way for Council to amend the Unified Development Ordinance to require almost all new development to include sidewalk construction. In cases where sidewalks may be impractical — such as along steep grades, or in warehouse districts with little or no pedestrian traffic — developers could opt to pay a fee to a sidewalk fund, instead. Westbrook explained that the fees could fund sidewalk repairs and the construction of new ones, where needed.

But developer John Powell questioned that philosophy. “We’re paying taxes, and [that] should pay for roads and sidewalks,” he told Council members on May 25.

In March, Powell and his partners first requested permits for expanding a ministorage facility on a dead-end street near the intersection of Smokey Park Highway and Interstate 40. On May 25, he asked Council to waive the sidewalk requirement in his case, because the industrial locale is unsuitable for pedestrian traffic.

City staff tended to agree, but recommended that Council members deny his request, to give them time to finalize the fee-in-lieu-of-sidewalk proposal. City Engineer Cathy Ball reported that the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission is scheduled to review the proposal on July 7; Council would probably consider it soon after.

Council member Chuck Cloninger made a motion to deny Powell’s waiver request. However, he added that staff should not enforce the sidewalk requirement until the fee requirement is in place. That would allow Powell to begin construction of the project.

Said Council member Cobb, in support of Cloninger’s motion, “We need to have a system and stick with it.”

Mayor Leni Sitnick offered Powell (who is her personal attorney) an apology of sorts: “You got caught in a time warp … between [the] permitting [process] and our desire to make a change [in sidewalk policy].”

Seconded by Sellers, Cloninger’s motion passed, 6-0 (Council member O.T. Tomes was absent from the session).

Policing the police

Are Asheville police officers being overzealous in their efforts to clean up downtown? Self-proclaimed wanderer Mickey Mahaffey fears they are; on May 25, he asked City Council to look into it.

Mahaffey charged that Asheville police have been enforcing “certain arbitrary laws” in order to clamp down on panhandling, public drunkenness and crack dealers downtown. The “clean-sweep” operation is going too far, Mahaffey argued, noting that he, himself, was arrested for cursing in public (in what he says was a nonthreatening situation), and spent a weekend in jail, where officers ridiculed and mocked him.

Council member Tommy Sellers responded that the behavior of jailers is a Buncombe County problem.

But Mahaffey replied that he had also witnessed Asheville police officers ridiculing a female prisoner, calling out to one another such comments as, “Have we got a woman?” and “Is it any good?”

Asked by Mayor Sitnick to respond to Mahaffey’s concerns, City Attorney Bob Oast said that this was the first he’d heard of “overzealous enforcement.” Sitnick suggested that Mahaffey meet with Oast to discuss the issue.

When Mahaffey attempted to make further comments — after his three-minute time limit had expired — Council member Cloninger noted that the issue had been addressed by directing Mahaffey to meet with Oast. Council members agreed, especially since it was nearly 10:30 p.m., in what had proved to be a lengthy session.

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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