The mayor’s column addressing this subject can be found here.
Shortly after moving to Ferguson in 2005, the city created a Responsible Landlord Initiative. This program imposed interior inspections on rental properties upon change of occupancy, and established a landlord licensing program under which problem landlords would be undergo additional scrutiny. The worst landlords could have their landlord license revoked, which would leave them unable to obtain occupancy permits on their rental properties. This program increased inspection costs from $40 to $150, one of the most expensive occupancy inspections in the region. And it imposed an annual landlord license fee on each unit.
With this powerful tool to regulate the conduct of landlords in the city, it is particularly disappointing to hear the mayor continue the city’s posture as a hopeless victim of malevolent landlords. Because it is a solution which appeals to the simple and uninformed, attacking landlords has been a staple of city government for years. But in fact, landlords are the one group over whom the city is able to exercise control – if only they were willing.
Initially, the interior inspections were performed by a contractor, who was paid directly by the landlord. Inexplicably, the city retained control over the quick and simple exterior inspections, for which they charged the landlord an additional fee. But the city, never shy of grasping at a revenue stream, ultimately brought the interior inspections in house, tripling the city’s revenue for rental property inspections. But the city didn’t hire additional inspectors for this added task, which now takes a great deal of our inspectors’ time, squeezing out proactive enforcement efforts.
The regulatory power of the Responsible Landlord Initiative, which was its main selling point, never came to fruition. The worst landlords, some of whom owned the large apartment complexes along West Florissant which have grabbed headlines in recent years, continued to receive occupancy permits, despite easily observable and serious code violations. While individual landlords received threatening letters for minor violations, large property owners rented out units with mold and insect infestations, overflowing dumpsters, and even a collapsing concrete walkway, with conditions so bad that the county Housing Authority did a code inspection sweep.
The truth is, Mayor Jones continues our long tradition of incorrectly identifying the source of our problems. Our community is victim not so much of landlords, who in fact are subject to much stricter scrutiny than owner occupants, but rather of incompetent city government, which picks on the low hanging fruit, while the worst problems continue without consequence. And this is not something which just started under Mayor Jones, though she has done nothing to make matters better.
Jones focuses on “speculators … [who] often acquire housing that is abandoned or in foreclosure. Typically, they make minimal or no repairs to the properties prior to renting them to renters on whom they have done little or no screening.” First of all, we salute anybody who is willing to take on an abandoned or neglected property. Owner occupants are not lining up to purchase these homes, which would otherwise sit empty until they collapsed from neglect. To her allegation that they make no repairs prior to renting them, how is that possible? Our Responsible Landlord Initiative requires an interior and exterior inspection prior to renting, and if these inspections are being done properly, every rental must be “up to code” at every change of occupancy. And I can assure you that landlords do screen their tenants, because the potential cost of a bad tenant is enormous. But screening isn’t perfect, and sometimes, we make high profile, expensive mistakes.
In contrast, property owners are quite capable of neglect. The city recently demolished two homes on Adelle. These homes had never been rentals, and in fact, were owner occupied for more than half a century. These were two of the most deteriorated and dangerous houses in Ferguson. Yet it took months of repeated personal intervention by myself to get them demolished. Prior to my focus on this issue, the city didn’t even notice that the county had failed to transfer the titles, which is the first step in the city’s demolition process.
I have also been working to get 7454 Castro demolished. This home is far beyond saving. Yet inexplicably, the city has awarded it to a developer in our property restoration program. Mark my words, this property will not be saved. But it will remain a blight to the neighborhood until somebody at city hall figures that out. And better yet, the city recently had our nuisance abatement contractor clear up the mess there, which will surely cost a pretty sum. Will those fees be charged to the Section 8 landlord who seeks ownership of that property? If the property had been demolished, as was already approved by the council, the lot would have been cleared by the demolition contractor, at no additional cost to the city.
Ultimately, our city is the victim of careless government. Failing to properly identify the problems is at the root. The problem is exacerbated, in the case of rental properties, by the city’s use of the Responsible Landlord Initiative solely as a revenue source, and not as a tool to stabilize and improve the quality of life in our city. There are many people who share in the blame for this problem, some of whom no longer work for the city. But the problem starts at the top. Mayor Jones’ complete failure to grasp the problem, and her further failure to present any meaningful solutions, does not bode well for the future of our city.