Asheville City Council

“Good news! Housing prices will drop — through the floor! No more affordable-housing problems at all! Landlords, just tell your tenants that they’re gonna get their rebates.”

— Asheville City Council member Holly Jones

At the Asheville City Council’s Aug. 12 formal session, Holly Jones raised sarcasm to an art form. Gesticulating wildly and using full lung capacity, Jones shouted the above words after it had become clear that four of her colleagues would vote to substantially weaken the city’s highly successful minimum housing code.

Council will revisit the issue Sept. 23 to determine fees and penalties under the new approach.

Jones’ barbed remarks were a dig at the oft-repeated argument that the city’s minimum housing code creates unwarranted expenses that are burdensome for landlords and are ultimately passed on to renters. During a public hearing on possible revisions to the code, many local landlords, real-estate agents and speculators assailed the current law, which they say has contributed to a critical lack of affordable housing in Asheville. Their arguments were simple: The inspections mandated by the code are costly, redundant and no longer necessary. Eliminating or substantially reducing the scope of the code, they maintained, would help solve the city’s affordable-housing problem. Code opponents also asserted that the vast majority of property owners willingly comply with the housing rules, maintaining their properties in order to protect their investments.

“These inspections are costing people a lot of money,” noted Council member Joe Dunn before the voting. “I think these regulations need to be fair; this system is not fair. It paints with a broad brush — the good guys are getting hammered, because we got some slumlords that don’t care. … Those are the people we should be going after big time.”

Dunn didn’t indicate how he envisions the city going after slumlords, but in a later interview, Council member Jim Ellis said he’s been approached by local real-estate interests who are pushing for stiff fines for scofflaws.

Much to housing-code advocates’ chagrin, however, it will now be up to renters to bring those slumlords to the city’s attention. Council voted 4-3 to revert to a complaint-based system that some argue will imperil both the city’s housing stock and tenants who file complaints. Mayor Charles Worley joined Dunn, Ellis and Council member Carl Mumpower in approving revisions recommended by Building Safety Director Terry Summey that substantially reduce both the frequency and scope of code regulations. Under the new code, owner-occupied homes will be inspected only once — the first time they’re sold after the new law takes effect — and then only for basic “life-safety issues,” Summey explained later. That represents a significant shift from the current comprehensive inspections. Rental units would also be inspected only once, though they could face additional scrutiny if a complaint about the property were filed with Summey’s office. And the number of residences that must be inspected in a multiple-unit rental facility has been cut from 50 percent to 20 percent (10 percent if the landlord has a property-maintenance program).

The revision is a substantial departure from the mandatory inspections established by the minimum housing code adopted in 1994. That code, in turn, represented a marked departure from the existing complaint-based inspection policy that critics had assailed as a major contributor to the city’s deplorable housing conditions. The 1990 census classified fully one-third of Asheville’s housing stock as substandard (for more on the history of the housing code, see “Talking in code,” Aug. 6 Xpress).

Safety vs. inconvenience

Both camps in the housing-code debate seem to agree on one key point: The mandatory inspections and strict enforcement established by the 1994 code have greatly improved Asheville’s housing stock. Council member Brian Peterson asserted (and Summey later confirmed) that since the code’s adoption, 90 percent of Asheville rental properties have been brought into compliance.

That compliance rate, however, quickly became the epicenter of the debate, cited by advocates and opponents alike to bolster their positions. Code advocates maintain that the rate proves the superiority of mandatory inspections over the old complaint-based system, which they say helped create the substandard-housing crisis recorded in the 1990 census. Opponents, meanwhile, argue that the 90 percent compliance rate shows the code has served its purpose and can now go the way of the dodo.

Speaking in defense of the code, Executive Director Scott Dedman of the nonprofit Mountain Housing Opportunities implored Council to opt for a compromise that would require inspections less frequently. Dedman, who is also board president of the Asheville/Buncombe Affordable Housing Coalition, pulled no punches when discussing the merits of a complaint-based system, proclaiming, “I have worked in this field for 22 years now, in most every neighborhood of Asheville, and I am convinced that a rental-housing code which is enforced by complaint only is a code which will not be enforced.”

Reflecting on his experiences over the years, Dedman noted that property owners don’t always have tenants’ best interests in mind. “How many of us have seen investor renovations where the structural and safety items are overlooked or ignored in favor of cosmetic improvements to please the casual eye?” he inquired. Answering his own question, Dedman noted: “I, for one, have seen new carpet placed over floors which were sagging into the basement. I have seen rotting and unsafe structural posts covered with cheap paneling and then painted, while the rot continues underneath. I have seen unsafe wiring tucked away — out of sight, out of mind.”

The prospect of renters having to act as their own building inspectors clearly galled Dedman, who warned, “If the responsibility of enforcing safety in the home — I mean the safety for children, for the elderly and disabled, and even safety for residents in nearby homes — if that enforcement depends on the tenant having both the technical knowledge and the courage to make a complaint, then I believe a dangerously small percentage of the hazards in rental homes and apartments will be corrected.”

Dedman also took aim at housing-code opponents. “The opposing interest I am talking about comes from a very influential group of real-estate investors and investor organizations who somehow have decided that ensuring a safe housing stock is somehow against their interests,” he charged.

Real-estate agent Stephen Duncan, a member of the Council-appointed Minimum Housing Code Task Force that failed to reach consensus on the issues, observed that even the best public policies “can spiral out of control.” Duncan took special care to point out that “there seems to be a feeling that if we don’t agree [with the code], we don’t believe in safety. I disagree. I think there is no one in this room who is not interested in safety.” He added that code supporters’ contention that tenants would be reluctant to file complaints out of fear of landlord reprisals is rendered moot by the fact that “there are severe penalties under [state] law for any landlord that would do that.”

Questioned later, Summey, the city’s code enforcer, said that in his eight-plus years in his position, he couldn’t recall a single example of an Asheville landlord paying such a penalty. “Tenants don’t have the resources to take a landlord to court. They don’t have the money; that’s not gonna happen. … Typically, they’ll just move out.”

Following Duncan’s remarks, fellow task-force member and real-estate agent Judy Carver noted: “I know homeowners who have rental properties who are getting out of the business. I can’t say that this is only because of the C.O. [certificate of occupancy, required before a property can be occupied] process. But it is one of the reasons they always give. We always talk about affordable housing. Well, you’re taking those rental units off the market — they’re going to private individuals, so the number of units for affordable housing is decreasing.”

But the overwhelming majority of the dozens of people who spoke during the public hearing strongly supported maintaining mandatory inspections. One city resident gave a chilling account of having lived in a rental home infested with rats and with a toilet held together by duct tape. “After I complained to the landlord,” she noted, “he gave me a 10-day notice to get out.”

One of the evening’s most controversial presentations came from Mike Summey (no relation to Terry Summey), who introduced himself as “the largest landowner in the city.” Summey drew hisses from the audience when he charged that the many representatives of local housing-related nonprofit agencies who spoke in favor of preserving the mandatory inspections had self-serving motives.

A tightly divided Council

In the end, however, it all boiled down to the opinions of the seven City Council members. As the hands on the clock edged toward midnight, the seven finally voiced their own positions on the matter. Jim Ellis immediately made a motion to adopt city staff’s recommendation. That motion was promptly amended by Brian Peterson, who wanted to preserve mandatory inspections for rental properties. But Peterson’s amendment was shot down by Worley, Dunn, Ellis and Mumpower, making it clear how the final vote would also go.

At that point, a steely-eyed Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy (who works for Mountain Housing Opportunities) leaned into her microphone and declared to the audience: “I cannot support this. It goes against everything I believe in.” With a look of sheer disbelief, Bellamy questioned how easing up on inspections would help solve the city’s affordable-housing crisis. Promising one and all that “this issue will not go away,” she vowed that the Council would revisit the issue in the future, to assess whether rents have actually gone down.

After Joe Dunn had weighed in on behalf of “the good guys” whom he said have been “getting hammered” by the mandatory inspections, Holly Jones cut loose with her scathing remarks. Jones also pleaded with the public not to overlook Council’s inconsistency in dealing with similar situations. “The public must hold this Council accountable,” she proclaimed, referring to last November’s vote to beef up the city’s panhandling ordinance. In a later interview, Jones told Xpress: “I see a disturbing double standard at play here. This City Council couldn’t wait to control the behavior of poor people and street musicians on the streets of Asheville while big-shot landlords get a free pass. The public should not allow us to have such a glaring double standard.”

After years of complaining about the minimum housing code, real-estate investors in Asheville have persuaded city leaders to return to a complaint-based system. But it remains to be seen how the city’s response to tenants’ complaints compares to its approach to landlords.

hmmmm?

More than 200 people flocked to City Hall for the Asheville City Council’s Aug. 12 formal meeting — whose agenda included public hearings not only on the housing code but also on the Grove Park Inn’s proposed downtown high-rise, the latest plans for redesigning Pack Square, and a UDO amendment easing zoning restrictions on multifamily housing. Instead, Council voted to postpone every item on the agenda except the hearing on the housing code. The decision to scrap the rest of the agenda came three hours into the meeting, when it became obvious that the housing-code hearing would drag on well into the evening. Why was the agenda so full? And with the remaining hearings now rescheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 19 at 3:30 p.m., how many citizens will be able to have their say?

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