The Greensboro City Council has been active since the May 12 fire in an apartment on Summit Avenue where five children died. The result has been that the apartment building was condemned and the tenants served with eviction notices.
According to the official fire report, the fire was caused by unattended food in a pot on the stove that was left on, not from faulty wiring or a defective stove as was rumored before the official report was made public.
In October, as a response to the fire, the City Council plans to amend the city ordinance dealing with the periodic inspection of residential dwelling units.
The main focus of the ordinance, according to City Councilmember Justin Outling who participating in the discussions that resulted in the proposed ordinance, is to allow the city to inspect all the units in a multifamily building if the inspector finds that unsafe conditions exist in one dwelling unit that is an immediate threat to the occupants.
So an inspector who found a safety hazard in one apartment would be able to inspect all of the other units in that building to see if the same safety hazard existed without having a specific complaint or actual knowledge of the existence of that safety hazard in those apartments.
Outling said this would result in an apartment building being treated like a single-family residential building where the inspector is not limited to one room. He said that one result would be that the inspectors could spend more time inspecting and not getting the paperwork necessary to inspect, and the ordinance would apply to any multifamily structure regardless of whether the units were owned or rented.
Outling, who is an attorney with Brooks Pierce, said that it appeared to him there was a drafting error in another section of the ordinance in which the City Council can designate a portion of the city not to exceed one square mile as a blighted area and inspect all of the structures in that area. Outling said that even in a designated blighted area the city would have to have “reasonable cause” to inspect the buildings, but the way the ordinance was written was confusing.
“Reasonable cause” is defined as having a history of more than four verified complaints in a 12 month period, having a complaint or request for inspection, violations visible from outside the building or the inspections department having knowledge of actual unsafe conditions inside the building.
Another portion of the ordinance that at least appears to be a problem is that the ordinance states that the Police Department will assist a landlord “in evicting a tenant who has been charged with a crime.”
According to the law, a person is innocent until proven guilty; to treat a tenant differently because they have been “charged with a crime,” appears to violate this principle.
It also seems to state that landlords are responsible for stopping their renters from committing crimes and the Police Department will assist landlords in those efforts.
Outling said that section was intended to deal with problems such as the city encountered at Heritage House, which the city condemned. The city is still in the process of buying all of the condominiums in the building.
Outling said that both the Greensboro Housing Coalition and the Triad Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition (TREBIC) participated in the discussions and they had all reached agreement on the new ordinance. The key points being the ability to inspect an entire building if one dwelling unit is found to have significant safety issues and to have periodic inspections of buildings with a history of violations.
From 2009 to 2013, Greensboro had a Rental Unit Certificate of Occupancy (RUCO) ordinance that required all rental units to have passed an inspection and have a certificate of occupancy before a lease was signed. The North Carolina legislature passed a state statute that made treating rental property differently for inspections illegal, and in 2013 the city did away with RUCO.
The new ordinance being proposed steers clear of that state statute by making the requirements the same for inspecting owner occupied and rental units.