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City staff urges Council to adopt rental registration programs

Wednesday, September 25, 2013 by Michael Kanin

City of Austin Code Compliance officials have recommended that City Council members complete adoption of a pair of rental registration programs proposed by both Council Members Bill Spelman and Kathie Tovo. Should Council agree, it would cost taxpayers nearly $700,000. That entire figure is associated with the registry proposed by Tovo.


Council Member Laura Morrison saw the proposals as complementary. “They are not competing resolutions, they are complimentary ordinances and I think that they will work well (together),” she said.


Morrison’s statement is an echo of one she made in June. (See In Fact Daily, June 6)


The registries started out as dueling proposals on Council members’ June 6 agenda. Spelman’s called for what became known as a repeat offenders program: After a specific number of code violations, apartment owners would have to register for the program.


“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 at the time. “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’s proposal would force all landlords in three regions of the city where code violations appear to proliferate into the program. Those would be the East Riverside corridor, the region encompassed by the Restore Rundberg program, and a region of the city near the University of Texas campus where so-called stealth dorms cause concern.


Council members initially signed off on both programs and instructed Code Compliance officials to return with details for final approval.


At a work session Tuesday, Council members wondered whether Austin could mirror a Dallas program that offers dedicated legal staff to handle rental issues, along with a robust program to operate bad actor properties in receivership.


City Attorney Karen Kennard noted that her office does have personnel dedicated to the issue, but added that the program is not “the Dallas model.”


“Those prosecutors are housed out in the community,” Kennard added. “That’s not currently our code enforcement model.”


Council Member Chris Riley focused in on an occupancy list that the new regulations would compel landlords to maintain – in part, at least, to limit abuse of occupancy rules as happens with stealth dorms. Riley wondered whether the list would be kept in city custody. Code Compliance Director Carl Smart assured him that it would not.


Riley responded with some skepticism. “If the landlord is just keeping their own list, I’m not sure how effective that is at encouraging anything” he said.


Examining the $700,000 price tag, Riley wondered if fewer regular inspections might reduce costs. “Since we’re talking about registration of all properties – not just the problem properties – we want to make sure that we minimize the costs of the program,” he said. “The more frequent your inspections, the higher your costs are going to be. And if the program is going to come close to paying for itself, then your fees are going to have to be commensurate with the frequency of your inspections.”


The Austin program contemplates a property inspection every two years. Riley noted that a similar effort in Boston offers inspections once every five years. The Fort Worth program comes with inspections every four years.


Smart suggested that he and his colleagues should wait to worry about that issue. “At this point it’s almost irrelevant to the program because it is a one-year pilot,” he said.


Riley noted that projections associated with the program strongly hinted that it was set up to continue beyond the pilot period.


The programs are set for a vote Thursday. Tovo told her colleagues that she would offer amendments before they vote on the programs. She noted that one amendment would seek to extend the pilot program from 12 to 18 months.

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