WV: Huntington officials look to make rental properties safer through enforcing registry

Herald Dispatch News –

HUNTINGTON — In the two years since its creation, Huntington’s rental property registry has been dormant as city officials worked to navigate new waters in how it should operate, but there are plans to activate it soon.

The registry could be given a new breath of life as Mayor Steve Williams will ask the City Council on Sept. 14 to move funds around in the budget to hire three new code enforcement inspectors who would ensure its compliance.

Officials hope the enforcement of the registry will make the city’s rental property — which accounts for nearly half of the city’s households — more attractive to people who might want to move here from larger cities due to increased acceptance of remote work and changes in careers caused by COVID-19.

Huntington City Manager Hank Dial said after reviewing the budget, the city has enough money to shift for the new employees, but added the city could not afford to not make the hires.

“Quite honestly, we can’t afford not to do it. These positions are absolutely 100% necessary. It is investment,” he said. “It protects the folks who are living in these houses, but it also protects the folks who are living next to these places. And as long as they’re maintained and safe, then that protects them.”

A plan to enforce the registry

The rental registry was created in August 2018 with the goal of enforcing minimum maintenance necessary to ensure rental homes were safe, sanitary, free from fire and health hazards and overall fit to be lived in.

There are an estimated 8,500 to 9,000 rental properties in Huntington, but only 1,500 to 2,000 are registered with the city, although that number continues to grow.

Huntington City Attorney Scott Damron said rental registries are uncommon in the state, but Morgantown and Weirton have them, and the city had been working to determine how it could be fully enforced. Officials found the need for additional general inspectors whose job would be to enforce the rental registry.

“The whole purpose for the rental registry is to give us the ability to get into properties, to inspect properties, make a determination whether or not they’re safe for the tenants and give us the ability to have the landlord or owner to make the changes that are necessary to bring the property to code,” he said.

The rental registry also covers dorm-style housing, such as for fraternities, senior living and recovery homes — anywhere that is not owner-occupied or unoccupied.

Currently, if more than five people live in a property, they are held to increased precautions, like having a sprinkler or fire system and fire doors.

The registry was not made to target any one group of people, but Dial said the city regularly receives complaints that improperly run sober-living homes have a negative effect on neighborhoods.

“We support legitimate recovery organizations,” he said. “But we will not tolerate human trafficking in the name of recovery that victimizes those suffering with substance abuse disorder by placing them in unsafe housing and also doing great harm to our neighborhoods by not complying with safety, business or zoning regulations.”

The plan would be to have a three-year rotation for the new inspectors, fire marshal and other inspectors to follow to make sure the properties are up to fire, building and health codes. The initial inspections would be conducted at no cost and owners would be given a chance to make the corrections, but they could be fined with every return visit afterward, Huntington Fire Marshal Mat Winters said.

The new hires will work under the inspections division and Public Works. While Huntington has several inspectors who specialize in different fields, they will be trained as general inspectors and educated on building, electric, plumbing and other codes.

A plan will be presented to City Council at its Sept. 14 meeting asking for money in the budget to be shifted toward hiring the inspectors.

Attracting new residents through registry

Huntington Communications Director Bryan Chambers said 49% of residents in Huntington are renters. Thirty-eight percent of those homes are considered declining property and 19% are considered unsafe or vacant housing.

For a property to be better than “declining,” it would have to be getting routine maintenance and being taken care of. That’s the minimum goal of the rental registry, Chambers said.

City officials hope the inspections will help keep the declining homes from being considered unsafe, at which point they would have to go before the Unsafe Building Commission and possibly be put on the city’s demolition list.

Data released by PEW Research Center in July said nearly 1 in 5 Americans either had relocated due to the novel coronavirus pandemic or known someone who has. Twenty-two percent had relocated, had someone move into their household or known someone who moved. Three percent moved permanently or temporarily, while 6% said someone moved into their home.

The nation’s young adults, from age 18 to 29, were most likely to answer “yes” to those questions at 37%.

In August, an ordinance was enacted to provide tax relief for the construction or renovations to existing single-family homes in Huntington. It was done to attract new residents to Huntington.

The enforcement of the rental agency is a step in continuing that attraction and to preserve and protect the quality of life for existing residents, Chambers said.

Inspecting expectations

Inspectors can legally enter the homes and perform the inspections because the home is part of the landlord business, but Winters said he will not do an inspection without having proof the tenant was notified ahead of time. Also, the inspector will not enter a home unless the tenant is there. Winters said he doesn’t want a tenant to feel like they are “just barging in on them” and wants to provide respect.

“We want to make sure that we’re not just surprising anyone, anybody, and so those (inspections) will be scheduled and there will be a procedure,” he said.

The city had already been inspecting properties on a complaint basis, but the new hiring would allow it to do every rental in the city on a regular schedule. They will most likely follow a spreadsheet with a rotation of inspections. If an inspector cannot inspect a home for whatever reason, it will stay on top of the list so it doesn’t get lost.

Unless it’s a safety hazard that is dangerous to the occupant, landlords are given written notice of what needs to be corrected, and they have 10 days to get in compliance or notify them of what needs to be done to correct it.

If there is a problem with noncompliance, the city could seek a cease-and-desist injunction in court.

Code enforcement will continue to work on exterior sanitation.

Winters said there is potential for fines for continuing noncompliance with the rental registry, but he hopes to keep the cost at a minimum for landlords who work with them.

Winters said property owners have been signing up when they apply for a business license. It’s as simple as filling out an additional form, and there is no charge for registering.

Hope for increased renter safety

Winters said West Virginia is historically the most dangerous state to live in when it comes to the risk of dying in fires.

“I believe you’ll never prevent all fires, but all fire deaths are preventable,” he said. “So what the rental registry will help do with that is help us have the ability to get into these buildings and inspect.”

He used the example of a Mingo County family of six last week that was found unconscious in their home due to carbon monoxide fumes as one situation the rental inspections could have prevented.

Winters said before the implementation of the rental registry, people did not know who to turn to when they needed help. Typically a renter will make the complaint, but Winters said some complaints come from parents or family members of renters.

In the two years since the registry’s creation, complaints and inspections have increased.

A code violation could be something as simple as a broken light switch, Winters said, but other times he has had to intervene and say the renters need help and have to get out.

Winters said he has not seen a trend of properties owned by one landlord having issues.

“… There are a lot of them that just don’t know certain codes or don’t understand that there are certain requirements that apply to them,” he said. “Our goal is to educate and improve safety, so once we do that, a lot of times we start seeing a major increase in the compliance and we have improvements.”

Continuing efforts

Officials are also looking to change the city’s trespassing code.

Officials want to extend the current property trespassing citation — which calls for a fine of up to $500 and no more than 30 days of jail time — to include structure trespassing for residential and commercial buildings.

It would also allow the city to post the sign, giving enforcement officers better opportunity to address squatters in vacant housing, Damron said.

“Our ordinance says if they have the consent of the owner, it’s not trespassing,” he said. “So we don’t know if we go into a house there are squatters in there. We can assume that it is, but we don’t know that for a fact.”

The proposal was forwarded to the full City Council by the Public Safety Committee on Friday and will most likely undergo a first reading Sept. 14.

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