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6/27/2005
Councilman Weiner sponsors Rental code; up for vote

NCCo poised to OK residential guidelines

By ANGIE BASIOUNY / The News Journal
06/27/2005

New Castle County Council is expected to approve on Tuesday a new set of laws designed to protect people living in rental housing without punishing responsible landlords.

The Residential Rental Property Code would require landlords to register their rental units, give tenants a guide to their rights and allow the county to conduct random inspections. It affects large apartment complexes operated by companies as well as single units owned by individuals.

The legislation is the idea of County Executive Chris Coons, who put together a group of stakeholders in 2003 when he was council president. Those stakeholders -- a mix of tenants, landlords, nonprofit housing groups, county officials and urban policy experts -- met for more than a year to hammer out the details. But Coons failed to garner enough support to pass the measure in December 2003.

The new version of the code, sponsored by Councilman Robert S. Weiner, is virtually identical to the original code.

"The bill had merit, but it lost for political reasons," Weiner said. "I supported it then, and I support it now."

Delaware has about 45,000 rental units, and about 36,000 of them are in New Castle County. It's not clear how many properties are problematic because there has been no method for finding them other than complaint-driven inspections. That's something the task force members hope the new code will remedy.

If the code is approved, each landlord would have to register with the county, and provide emergency contact information and a description of the unit. The registrations would be used to conduct random inspections of 5 percent of units each year.

"It will start to paint a picture of just how serious the problem of rental units is," said Steven Peuquet, acting director for the Center for Community Research and Service with the University of Delaware and a member of the task force. "The inspections process that we put into place will help prevent abuses and low quality of rental housing to a large extent."

There would be no fee to register, but landlords who fail to do so would be fined $150 for the first violation. There would also be fines for failing to update registry information and to distribute a New Castle County Tenants' Rights Guide with each lease.

Landlords on board

The tenants' guide explains that residents have a legal right to homes that have running water, heat, cooking appliances, no exposed electrical wires, no mold and no bug infestations, for example. Tenants are urged to try to resolve problems with their landlords before filing complaints.

Guntram Weissenberger, president of the Delaware Apartment Association, said landlords were amenable to the registration and inspection idea because there was no charge.

"One of the things we wanted to accomplish was that we didn't want to impede the landlords from doing business," he said. "I think it all worked out to everybody's benefit. I don't think it hurts the landlords who are doing their jobs. It has teeth for those not holding a relatively high quality of product."

The association represents the owners of apartment complexes, which account for about 23,000 rental units in the county. Weissenberger said the debate was difficult when his organization first sat down at the negotiating table to draft the code, but it got easier.

"We all brought our issues to the table and came to an amicable solution," he said.

Peuquet agreed: "I think the bill is a good, quality piece of legislation, and an example of the public sector working in cooperation with the private sector as well as the nonprofit sector for a bill that I think is good for everybody."

The Community Legal Aid Society, which represents tenants, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

The legislation would be the first rental code to cover the entire county, with the exception of government-subsidized housing. Cities such as Newark, Wilmington and Elsmere have had their own codes in place for years, and the county intends for its code to be complementary.

Less extensive code a 'first step'

Wilmington officials said their code, in place since the late 1980s, is especially important because of the population density and number of older row homes in the city.

Wilmington's code requires a prerental inspection and safety checklist that examines electrical outlets, smoke detectors, room sizes and other features. The burden is on the landlord to fix what fails the checklist and contact the city for reinspection.

Having a rental property code is "absolutely critical from our standpoint," Wilmington's Licenses and Inspection Commissioner Jeff Starkey said. "It's very instrumental to the operation of the city, I think."

The county's code is not as extensive, but it's a good first step, Starkey said.

Seven of the 13 County Council members have co-sponsored the bill, which means it has enough votes to pass Tuesday night. About $200,000 was set aside in the budget this year to implement and enforce the code.

Councilwoman Karen Venezky voted against the code in 2003. She has changed her mind, saying she will vote for it this time.

"I think it's a very good first step and I hope we learn from it, but I do have some reservations because of the issues that have been raised in my community" said Venezky, whose district includes Newark, which recently toughened its rental code to deal with its large student population.

She said the county's code doesn't address the number of people living in a residence or the number of cars parked outside rental properties, and other issues that are important for people living around rental properties.

Getting the code approved has personal meaning for Weiner, a Republican, and Coons, a Democrat. Both men are lawyers who represented indigent tenants at the beginning of their careers.

"This is a valuable piece of legislation," Coons said. "I believe it will make a difference."

Contact Angie Basiouny at 324-2796 or abasiouny@delawareonline.com.

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