Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Landlords upset with proposal requiring inspections of apartments between tenants

By Suzanne Carlson
Journal Inquirer
Published: Wednesday, February 3, 2010 11:03 AM EST

VERNON — Local landlords and their lawyers voiced concern to the Town Council on Tuesday over a proposed ordinance that would require a certificate of occupancy be issued each time a tenant moves into an apartment.

“The initial goal of this ordinance, maintaining safety in affordable housing units, is a laudable and important goal, but I don’t think this statute will get you any closer than you are today,” said Michael Clinton, a Glastonbury lawyer representing the Tolland County Property Owner’s Association.

During the public hearing, several others echoed Clinton’s sentiment of the ordinance, which would require an inspection of each apartment possibly creating time delays for renters and tenants.

Landlords also expressed frustration with the wording of the proposed ordinance, which includes exemptions for “substantially reconstructed” units, but no details on what constitutes substantial reconstruction.

Units less than 10 years old, and structures with three or fewer units also would be exempt under the proposed ordinance.

The proposal contains procedures for reprimanding landlords who don’t follow the ordinance, but it is unclear who would have the authority to enforce the ordinance and how the town would manage the load of new certifications.

It also is unclear how the proposed ordinance would coexist with Section 8 codes, which regulate inspections for occupancy of affordable housing units.

According to Clinton, only a handful of towns in Connecticut have similar regulations and many, including New Britain, have scrapped occupancy certification ordinances because of the personnel demands associated with inspecting a unit every time a tenant moves in.

The proposed ordinance also stipulates a $25 application fee for certification to help defray the cost of inspections, which several opponents argued would be passed down to the poorest residents in affordable housing units.

Robert Alexander, a lawyer representing the Vernon Housing Authority, criticized the council for not looking first to enforcement of current housing codes before proposing an ordinance that may be unenforceable without significantly more manpower.

“This way, you have something that’s catch as catch can. It’s not good for you, and it’s not good for landlords,” Alexander said.

On the issue of manpower, Mayor Jason L. McCoy suggested hiring seasonal staff per diem to handle the increased inspection load during the summer when schools are out and families are freer to relocate.

Robert Poulios of East Main Street, who is a small renter of multifamily housing units in Rockville, and several others said they wondered why the town couldn’t hire a housing code enforcement officer to do regular inspections throughout the year.

“Do you want to pay more taxes?” McCoy asked Poulios several times. “Do you? Because everyone’s all for new town officials but nobody wants their taxes to go up.”

Poulios said that if he were forced to choose between the ordinance and higher taxes for a building inspector, he would choose the latter as “the lesser of two evils,” but he also said he felt the ordinance was unnecessary to begin with.

“I don’t see an overriding, compelling, or substantiated reasoning for why we need this ordinance,” Poulios said.

Brian Edwards, owner of Edwards Real Estate, said the ordinance is not only unnecessary, but would be disastrous for the town.

“Normally we run an 8 percent vacancy, right now we’re at 29 percent. Times are bad,” he said. “I’ve been in this business for 39 years, I know what a slumlord is, and people here are working hard at their properties.

“We’re in a bad spot. $25 may not seem like much, but people don’t have it. Because of the burden of this ordinance, property owners are going to give up. Buildings are going to go vacant. You’re going to have more fires. Buildings are going to be stripped by vandals and vagrants will move in. There will be more police activity. Good intentions just might cripple this town forever,” he continued.

Council member Dan Champagne, who is also a Vernon police officer, disagreed with those who said the ordinance would be too burdensome.

“The vast majority of the landlords in this town are doing a good job, but it is the select few who are not that this ordinance addresses,” he said. “I’ve gone into units in this town as a police officer that I wouldn’t leave an animal in. I’ve seen mold on the walls. I’ve seen rain leaking through the roof over electrical outlets. I’ve seen bugs so bad that state troopers I went into the unit with left because they couldn’t stand it. That’s a problem. And when I see children in these units, that’s a big problem.

Eric Santini, owner of Villa Apartments and a landlord in town for 42 years, told the council that if it decides to pass the ordinance, he would comply.

“But I think you should vote no,” he said. “Vote no on this one and start over.”

The council voted unanimously to recess the public hearing to a later date to continue a dialogue with landlords.