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Competing rental registry measures on today’s Council agenda

Thursday, June 6, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Competing resolutions from Council Members Bill Spelman and Kathie Tovo may both earn Council approval today. If that plays out, those resolutions would establish rental property ownership registries for every rental property in three Austin neighborhoods, as well as owners who receive two citations or violations in a calendar year.


Council Member Laura Morrison set the tone during Council members’ regular Tuesday work session. “I don’t see these as in conflict,” she told her colleagues. “I see these potentially as complimentary resolutions.”


The resolutions represent attempts to proactively address issues of repeat code violations and the so-called bad actors who commit them. The proposals come after a lengthy and difficult stakeholder process that, says Spelman, resulted in an eventual registry that runs more along the lines of his proposal. For her part, Tovo suggested Tuesday that the process had yet to yield any meaningful results. 


Though Tovo asked Spelman about the issue, they eventually each produced with their own versions of the registry.


Spelman’s approach would mandate property owners join the registry after two violations or citations of city codes. “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?” Spelman told In Fact Daily Tuesday. “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.”


Tovo would focus on three neighborhoods that she argues have seen numerous code issues. Those are the East Riverside area, the Restore Rundberg region – after a suggestion by Morrison to expand the North Austin Civic Association boundary originally proposed by Tovo – and a section of Austin near the University of Texas where Tovo says so-called stealth dorms have become a problem.


Austin Code Chief Carl Smart suggested that Tovo and Council Member Mike Martinez expand their version of the program from a 12- to an 18-month pilot. That, Smart said, would allow the program to remain in place while – after 12 months had passed – his team reviews it.


Under the Tovo/Martinez plan. City Manager Marc Ott and his staff would have 90 days to develop the program for Council approval. Spelman’s, on the other hand, instructs Ott to immediately initiate a series of code amendments.


Spelman also would order city prosecutors “to the extent consistent with justice, to restrict negotiation with repeat offenders and seek the maximum penalty allowable by law.” That provision, Spelman argues, would refocus prosecutorial efforts away from the practice of settlement.


Cost has also been an issue. Registration on either the Tovo or Spelman list would result in a registration fee based on the cost of inspections that would go along with presence on the list. Spelman argues that these could be in the hundreds of dollars.


Spelman tried to illustrate his point Tuesday. He asked Smart if they could take a few minutes to piece together what such an inspection might cost. Smart replied that he’d rather take some time and put together a fiscal note. Spelman pressed his case.


Once he got going, Spelman’s questions came rapidly. “At some point I think the way I would think about this is to ask what has to happen once an inspector is on site, what are they going to look at? What kind of violations are they expecting to find?  Do they have to go inside the unit in order to find what they are looking for? Can they stay outside the unit? How long is it going to take?” he asked.


“And the how long is it going to take to write a report on the basis of what it is they find out?”


Spelman suggested that, given the above, inspectors would not be able to handle “much more” than five or six inspections per day. Smart confirmed that figure.


Though Tovo has suggested that the registration fees could be much lower, she has also said that she would not approve of fees that are so high that the cost is passed along to tenants.

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