Huntsville City Council to take on absentee landlords, property conditions

Huntsville City Council to take on absentee landlords, property conditions

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WAFF) - The impact of Huntsville’s property ordinances can be found down the street, around the corner, and potentially right at home.

They govern what conditions buildings must be kept in and how the city holds landlords accountable.

The consequences for not following those rules could be changing.

On Wednesday June 12, the Huntsville City Council is holding a work session to begin addressing Huntsville’s property laws.

Council members will be looking at the rules’ strength (or lack thereof) and concerns from the community.

It’s unclear what exactly will be done, but Councilwoman Jennie Robinson said the council is looking to take action.

“I think we now have the will on the council to do this. I don’t think previously we had that, but we’ve got a couple council members now who are seeing it become an issue in their neighborhoods,” she said.

Council members’ initial thoughts

Robinson said she is in favor of putting more resources toward city inspections (more inspectors with more authority) and potentially strengthening ordinances to punish landlords who are repeat offenders.

“Some people may need a little bit of additional encouragement with penalties, so we could look at increasing penalties. For the ones that, those few, that still don’t get it, then jail time may be something to look at,” Robinson said.

She also said property owners should be required to have a local property manager to address tenant and city concerns.

“The problem has been, lots of times, that we can’t contact them. Some of these landlords live out of state, some of them live out of country, all we have is a P.O. box, it may even be an estate or a trust that we’re dealing with,” Robinson said.

She said the majority of landlords are not an issue, and the council will work to make sure the ordinance-abiding landlords are not harmed by the rule changes.

Councilwoman Frances Akridge said she’s concerned about how worn-out business fronts are hurting property values in her district.

“It’s not just rental property owners, sometimes it’s property owners themselves who aren’t keeping things up to standard,” she said.

On the topic of pre-rental inspections, she questioned how the city could enforce such a measure.

“I don’t think it’s practical. I don’t, from a business point of view, both for the government and as well as business owners,” she said.

“Unless you can define exactly which apartments are getting inspected? And how do you do that?"

She said she hopes all parties involved (landlords, property managers, tenants) become aware of minimum building standards as a result of the discussion.

Addressing community concerns

Both Akridge and Robinson pointed to Huntsville Neighborhood Association Chair Lyle Voyles as a catalyst for the discussion.

Voyles said he and his organization are concerned about the preservation of their older neighborhoods, where absentee landlords have led to “blight" in the communities.

He advocates for pre-rental inspection ordinances similar to those which have been passed in Irondale, Anniston, and Gadsden.

Those ordinances require an inspection before a certificate of occupancy can be issued (allowing the apartment rental to go forward).

The success of those ordinances have been mixed.

  • Irondale’s City Clerk James Steward said the ordinance passed in 2012 but was repealed in 2013 because of landlord and realtor backlash.
  • Anniston’s Legal Services of Alabama Managing Director David Webster called the city ordinance “a help” for property conditions and the city inspections department is aggressively enforcing it.
  • Gadsden’s building department has not yet returned a request for comment.

Voyles said on top of inspection, he hopes the city will introduce rental property registration and increase the ability of city judges’ to locate absentee landlords.

He added the laws and ordinances on the books do not adequately protect low-income tenants when landlords fail to provide basic home necessities.

State law gives landlords 14 days to address a written repair request or the tenant can end the lease.

However, Voyles said that leaves the tenants with few options.

“Sure, [the law is] there, but there are many that are not going to deal with that. They can’t, they have no recourse, they have nowhere to go,” he said.

Legal Services Alabama Huntsville Office Managing Attorney Holly Ray said her clients face that issue on a daily basis.

She said she’s concerned it could be getting worse.

“As we start to have more and more of these out-of-state landlords, that have no real investment in our local community, those are many of the problem landlords that we see,” Ray said.

She said in May her office represented 38 clients in court over a landlord repair dispute.

Ray said in 2018, her office represented 183 clients on the issue and 235 in eviction cases.

She said the majority of the latter stemmed from conflicts over home conditions and repairs.

“Right now there is no city code short of condemnation that deals with that," she said.

"You can report it as an unsafe building, but if the landlord gets reported for an unsafe building, your tenant is often looking at 24 hours to vacate.”

Ray said she hopes the council creates a “happy medium” between the city’s 24 hour “unsafe building” ordinance and the state’s 14 day lease termination law.

Additionally, she said she supports a “tenants bill of rights” which would outline and mandate basic necessities for living including sanitation, plumbing, and heating/cooling.

Huntsville area realtors collaborating

The Huntsville Area Association of Realtors held a meeting on June 4 to update its members on the potential discussions taking place.

Roughly 50 realtors attended, with the majority speaking against any increase in regulations.

Realtors in attendance said inspections will cost landlords a large percentage of profits between inspection fees and the resulting wait times from the inspections.

They spoke in favor of an effort to educate tenants on property rights and an enforcement of what’s already on the books.

Before the meeting, realtor Michelle Cummings said adding teeth to existing rules is something her company could get behind.

“The answer to absentee landlords, they just need to get good property management in the city of Huntsville,” she said.

“Or the city of Huntsville needs to demand that if you have a rental property in the city, that you have a business license to operate any kind rental property.”

Association president Cindi Peters-Tanner said the association is looking forward to collaborating with city council on ordinances which would benefit everyone.

“We want to make sure the landlords, or the owners, whether they’re local or not, are doing their part, and that’s where absentee landlords have come in. They need local representation in our opinion,” she said.

“We want to make sure we protect the value of the neighborhoods, so we’re actually working for both sides, and that’s where we want to work with the city and make sure that we can come up with something that works.”

Peters-Tanner said city inspection of rental properties would cost landlords money and be an “overburden.”

The city council is meeting on the issue on June 12 at 6 p.m..

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