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Dueling resolutions seek to improve rental housing conditions

Friday, May 31, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Council Members Bill Spelman and Kathie Tovo will offer competing attempts to establish a registration system for select Austin landlords as part of next week’s Council agenda. The passage of either resolution would, say their respective authors, focus civic energy on preventing bad-actor landlords from taking advantage of their renters. 


Presence on the list would make landlords liable for increased inspections from a to-be-determined set of city compliance officers that would come with a fee. The charge could prove controversial, especially if landlords extend their added costs to renters. Given the city’s continuing conversation about affordable housing and regulation that seems inevitable.


Spelman’s measure is the more targeted of the two. He aims to register only repeat offenders – two-time rules violators. He told In Fact Daily that inspections would expensive, and that a more narrow focus would keep the pain of that fee – and a potential rent increase for tenants – to a minimum.


“The real question is: who do you want to inspect? Do you want to inspect everybody on a random basis or do you want to inspect the people who you have pretty good reason to believe that you need to inspect?” he said. “I think that’s the critical difference here – we’re reserving that extremely expensive inspection program for those properties where we think it’s most necessary.”


Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole is Spelman’s co-sponsor on the measure and Council Member Mike Martinez is Tovo’s co-sponsor.


Tovo’s dragnet is a bit wider. Her resolution would register all landlords in three Austin geographic regions: The East Riverside area, Rundberg, and an area near the University of Texas. She argues that East Riverside and Rundberg community members have expressed safety concerns about buildings in those areas.


For the University-area region, Tovo says that Code Enforcement officials suggested that presence on a registry – and the accompanying additional attention from the city – could help prevent so-called stealth dorms. Those facilities, named for apparent developer interest in packing as many students in to a rental property as possible, have been an issue for residents of University-area neighborhoods.


Spelman told In Fact Daily that his office’s efforts with regard to a rental registry go back to his 2009 return to the Council dais. After four years’ worth of stakeholder consultation, a draft of Spelman’s resolution suggests that no consensus emerged. It adds that eventually, a “smaller meeting” of “stakeholders from all sides of the issue” hit on common ground.


This, Spelman argues is the more focused approach.


Spelman’s resolution also includes language directing city prosecutors – through City Manager Marc Ott and City Attorney Karen Kennard – to “as a matter of course and as standard operating procedure” increase penalties to the maximum allowable by law after a landlord receives more than one citation in a calendar year.


Currently, Spelman says, city prosecutors are more interested in settling cases. “Best I can tell, they treat every case – all compliance problems – on a case by case basis,” he said. “Their primary orientation is not to get fines but to get compliance. The compliance focus, so far as I can tell, can take weeks or months and often doesn’t result in a case coming to court at all.”


He added that, “as best I can tell, settlement is independent of the number of previous violations.” In other words, landlords who are repeat offenders are offered the same opportunity for settlement as those who have fewer or no violations.


For her part, Tovo is also concerned with enforcement and suggests that her resolution may include something to address that problem. She also notes that the stakeholder process that Spelman referred to “never resulted in any concrete action.”


Her resolution would instruct city staff to come back with a plan for rental registration in 60 days. “We haven’t gotten very far down in to the details,” she said, later adding that staff “is in the best position to come up with the mechanics” of the program.


Spelman worries that fee impact could be in the hundreds of dollars per unit, and that landlords will pass that cost on to current tenants.


Tovo suggests a much lower figure for the registration fee (somewhere between $40 and $100). She notes that she aims to keep fees “not set so high so that it has an impact on rent.”


She argues that though Spelman’s resolution would be “better than what we have now,” it would not “help us with that proactive piece.” There, she refers to her contention that a broader registry would be more effective in curtailing bad actors.


Expect a good deal of discussion next week, possibly as part of Tuesday’s work session and then as part of Thursday’s agenda.

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