In Columbia, college students are keying cars in retaliation for neighbors’ complaints, and throwing rotten meat and porn into the yards of young children, and hosting parties for hundreds that require police to call a halt. Congested parking, littered streets, overflowing garbage and front porch bonfires are not uncommon.
Some renters are unwittingly signing on to mold and rotting porch bannisters or seeing their shrubbery grow to block their windows. There are rental units with hazardous wiring and no fire exits. Crime goes up as property maintenance goes down.
Rental housing itself is not the problem. About half of all Columbians live in rental units, and the vast majority contribute positively to our civic life. The problem arises when landlords do not comply with our housing standards or their tenants bring lifestyles that are not in accord with those of the host neighborhood. Incompatible rental housing is threatening the quality of life and economic well-being of our more family-oriented neighborhoods.
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These problem units are having a negative impact on the property values of the surrounding homes, creating a dangerous tipping point where entire streets or areas convert to more transient rental and home ownership plummets.
In April of 2015, a group of citizens representing more than 20 neighborhoods petitioned the city to address this problem. To our great satisfaction, City Manager Teresa Wilson and Police Chief Skip Holbrook were already working on a solution.
Ms. Wilson and Chief Holbrook had recognized that our current system of criminal enforcement is just not working. Often landlords are difficult to identify, much less contact, and the court system is so backlogged that it can take two years to get a recalcitrant landlord or problem tenant before a judge. Even local landlords can be hard to reach since there is no list and many are identified only through a post office box or corporation.
Proposed Columbia rental housing ordinance draws concerns from landlords
The past year has been one of collaboration and consensus building. Now the City Council has scheduled a public hearing and vote for April 5.
Here’s the proposal in a nutshell:
▪ Landlords must register and establish a local contact so we can find them when there is an emergency or a problem.
▪ Rental properties that incur violations will be given points; when an excessive number of points are reached, remediation will be required, or the rental permit can be revoked.
▪ Rights of tenants and landlords are protected through an appeals process and current law.
Some landlords still object because they don’t want responsibility for renting to unruly tenants. But we must recognize that these are businesses, like convenience stores, bars, restaurants or game parlors. They should be held to standards that prevent their “customers” from infringing on the rights of their neighbors.
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Landlords have complained about added costs and paperwork. So the city staff has incorporated amendments to reduce any additional burden required by registration. Reasonable landlords and property managers have expressed satisfaction with these amendments.
Some landlords argue that because their taxes are based on a higher assessment rate than that of homeowners, they should be excused from accountability for health and safety. While meeting these standards comes at some cost, we must remember that these rental businesses are justly paying business rates. Unlike homeowners, landlords may deduct maintenance costs as a business expense. It should be noted emphatically that there are no new rules or standards — simply a more efficient and effective way of enforcing them.
We should support this ordinance to protect the quality of life in our neighborhoods — the foundation of Columbia’s success. Rental housing regulation is being dealt with from Texas to Virginia — throughout the South and especially in cities with significant student populations. In comparison, the approach offered by our leadership is reasonable and has proven effective as close by as in the town of Clemson.
We should support protecting the property values for owner-occupied residences and helping prevent crime. And we should be concerned about improving housing standards throughout our city.
One of the first things people say when asked about why they love Columbia is, “It’s a great place to live.” Let’s keep it that way.
Ms. Smith is president of the Coalition of Five Points Neighborhoods; contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.