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City’s rental registration program off to slow start

Monday, October 6, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

In January, it will have been one year since the city established its rental registration program, and it has only registered 12 properties as repeat offenders so far.

That number came out in City Council’s budget session last month, raising questions about why the number was so low. In a memo dated Sept. 18, Austin Code Department director Carl Smart explained why.

The program was intended to address “bad actor” landlords in the city who are renting properties that could be dangerous to their tenants, and to give the city a way to track and address these properties more effectively. (See Austin Monitor, Nov. 21, 2013)

In the memo, Smart explains that there was a delay in launching the program and identifying properties for the program. He attributes this to a number of factors. First, the city’s AMANDA software does not allow automation of the process. That means that staff must manually review all multifamily rental properties to make sure they meet the criteria established in the ordinance for registration. That, writes Smart, is “extremely time-consuming.”

Smart had the chance to address these problems with Council on Thursday, when Council members approved an item that allows information from the program to be included as part of an online reporting tool. Most of the conversation, however, centered on the small number of registered properties and what could be done to make the program more effective.

“I understand that there is some value to having a relatively small amount of repeat offenders … but I am a little surprised that there are only 12 inside the city,” said Council Member Bill Spelman, who questioned whether it would be possible to automate the process. Smart said they “were working on that,” but it was taking some time to figure out.

“The 12 that we have is a good, representative number, but there’s more out there. There’s more that fit the criteria for the repeat violation,” said Smart, who added that the department would also like to look at duplexes, triplexes and other smaller rental properties. So far the Code Department has concentrated its efforts on larger multifamily projects.

Smart explained that his staff was having a particular problem with the concept of habitability, which, as written, is subjective. He said that whether a code violation “impaired the quality of life” was the real sticking point.

“There may be a way to define that particular part of the ordinance, and when we come back with a report to this Council, we would like to bring back a recommendation of a better way to define that,” said Smart.

“I think the ordinance tries to distinguish between those violations that impair habitability and violations of properties that make properties substandard,” Smart continued. “Making that distinction is probably the challenge there. There are a number of violations that can make a property substandard, but the question is whether or not those violations impair the habitability of the property itself. I think we can find an answer by better-defining ‘impairing.’”

Austin Code staff is currently evaluating the program and planned to present an update and recommendations by Dec. 18, though Tovo asked that update come sooner.

“I think it’s imperative that we take some more assertive action in this area,” said Tovo. “I’d like to see this more successfully capture the repeat offenders, and it doesn’t appear to be doing that. It sort of boggles the mind that we only have a dozen in there when we know the numbers are larger.”

Map illustrates the City of Austin’s existing registered properties under its rental registration program.

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