Columbia landlords expressed numerous concerns and questions Tuesday upon a first look at the city’s proposed new rental housing regulations ordinance.
City staff has spent nearly a year developing a rental housing ordinance intended chiefly to establish a system of tracking rental properties and to strengthen the city’s ability to enforce code violations by persistent nuisance properties.
“This is not designed to penalize people on the occasional issue that may pop up,” said Mike Hemlepp, a city attorney who helped draft the ordinance. “The target is the chronic offender who isn’t trying to work with us.”
Some neighborhood leaders say rental properties are a detriment to neighborhoods’ quality of life, and the problems – noise, parking and disrepair, among them – are getting worse.
Some landlords who spoke Tuesday, though, say the problems are not as widespread as they are made out to be, and the proposed ordinance is too sweeping.
The ordinance, as initially crafted, would, among other things, require landlords with four or fewer properties to obtain an annual permit and would impose a system of points levied against landlords whose properties receive citations for ordinance violations. An accumulation of six points in a year could result in the revocation of a landlords’ rental permit. The ordinance also would require landlords who live outside a 45-mile radius of the city to register a local agent responsible for the property.
The ordinance is modeled largely off a similar ordinance in Clemson, Hemlepp said. Columbia is the only city that hosts a Southeastern Conference school without some type of rental housing ordinance, Hemlepp said.
At the same time, city staff is proposing reforms to ordinances on nuisance definitions and false security alarms, which have resulted in some 14,000 false emergency responses since 2014, said Police Chief Skip Holbrook, who said he considers false security alarms to be “a serious public safety issue.”
City Council members received their first presentation on details of the proposed rental housing ordinance Tuesday, but not before several of them received numerous messages, both of support and concern, from residents before the meeting. Some three dozen people, most of them opposed to the ordinance as it is initially written, showed up at Tuesday’s council work session.
Numerous landlords who spoke said they feel the ordinance will unnecessarily burden rental property owners, who already pay higher property taxes for their rental properties.
“You’re going after all of (the landlords),” said John McMaster, who owns numerous rental properties near the University of South Carolina campus. “Well, really, there are only a few people out there, I think, that are not really doing quite right. Go after them.” John McMaster is the brother of Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster, a landlord himself who sued the city for capping the number of unrelated people living in one house at three; the S.C. Supreme Court upheld the city ordinance in 2011.
One landlord who spoke Tuesday estimated he would have to raise his tenants’ rents at least 10 percent to account for the added costs to him as a property owner. Another landlord said the hike would be more like 15 percent or more.
The prospect of holding landlords accountable for their tenants’ behavior was another major concern.
“Whoever breaks the law, go after them,” said Raj Aluri, who both lives in University Hill and owns numerous rental properties in the neighborhood.
Several landlords who spoke agreed Columbia has problems with irresponsible landlords, particularly those who live outside the city, and with irresponsible tenants. But the measures of this proposed ordinance, they said, are not the appropriate solution.
City staff and council members appear to agree that some steps need to be taken to give the city the necessary authority to enforce regulations that are already on the books. The proposed rental housing ordinance, Hemlepp noted, does not introduce any new code regulations.
As it stands, the city has no data to track how many rental properties are in the city and where they are – and, consequently, there is no data to say which or how many rental properties are chronic code violators. And the city’s existing ordinances don’t provide the means for quickly cracking down on problem landlords or encouraging them to evict misbehaving tenants.
Council will continue discussions about the ordinance at its economic development committee meeting Dec. 8. The public is invited to give input at the meeting.
Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.
Council OKs purchase of body cameras for police
Columbia City Council on Tuesday approved spending nearly $170,000 to purchase 300 body-worn cameras for Columbia police officers.
The Columbia Police Department began looking into the possibly of introducing body-worn cameras in June 2014.
Since then, numerous high-profile incidents of officer use of force have ignited discussions across the United States concerning body-worn cameras.
Twenty-five Columbia police officers tested five versions of body-worn cameras over the summer to help evaluate the department's equipment options.
The department will purchase COBAN Echo cameras.