Highland News Leader

'Safety is not optional,' Highland officials tell landlords

Rene Friedel, a local property owners, raises her hand to ask HEMS Cheif Brian Wilson a question during an informational meeting on May 9. The meeting was to help inform Highland landlords about a new rental inspection process.
Rene Friedel, a local property owners, raises her hand to ask HEMS Cheif Brian Wilson a question during an informational meeting on May 9. The meeting was to help inform Highland landlords about a new rental inspection process. mbraa@bnd.com

Local landlords came out to Highland City Hall last week to learn more about new rental inspections that are expected to begin on June 1.

"What we aren't here to do is debate," Highland EMS Chief Brian Wilson said at the start of the meeting.

Last month, the Highland City Council passed new regulations that require health and safety inspections of rental properties every time there is a change in tenancy or a rental property switches ownership.

The inspections are a continuance of a Landlord Registration program, instituted in 2010, that requires all landlords to register every rental property they own in Highland. With the combination of these two programs, city officials hope to get all landlords registered and weed out existing nuisance conditions that are safety hazards for tenants.

The city worked on the ordinance for about a year and a half, and asked local property managers to help form it. The purpose of the inspections is to help establish and maintain a consistent baseline of health and safety standards for residents and renters, according to a letter the city recently sent to property owners.

However, because Highland has never had a program like this before, local landlords voiced confusion and concerns about the inspection process.

As a result, the city invited all registered landlords to a public meeting on May 9. The letter sent to property owners included a residential rental unit inspection request form, a landlord registration application, and the drafted list of nuisance conditions outlined by the city thus far.

During the meeting, Wilson, who is temporarily overseeing the inspections until the city can hire a new chief building and zoning officer, directed the conversation flow.

"Our goal tonight is just to make sure you are all comfortable and to get your questions answered," Wilson said.

Wilson gave an overview of the process for the inspection. He covered these points:

All landlords are required to register their rental properties using the Landlord Registration application;

The times inspections are required are at tenancy change or sale of the property;

To get an inspection, landlords must fill out a Residential Rental Unit Inspection Request form;

The inspection fee is $25;

The city will try to complete the inspection within two business days of the request;

Once the inspection is completed, the landlord will get a Health Safety Certificate of Compliance for the property;

If the inspection reveals a threat, no certificate will be issued until a re-inspection shows the problem was fixed;

Re-inspections are not free. They cost another $25.

Wilson also gave a brief overview of the applications included in the letter, and introduced the city's two inspectors. City employees Dylan Stock and Chris Straub will take over these duties for the meantime.

City Manager Mark Latham said the city is also looking to hire an employee whose sole responsibility is to preform these inspections. Once they are hired, Stock and Straub will only help as needed, Latham said.

After his presentation, Wilson facilitated a question-and-answer session.

There were mixed emotions in the crowd, and some confusion over some incorrect information in a city pamphlet that was handed out to the landlords. But overall, there were a few questions that could ultimately bring change to the ordinance, according to Latham.

Gayle Frey, the owner of Frey Properties of Highland LLC, recommended the city waive the re-inspection fee for a time, until landlords become familiar with the inspection processes. Then, once landlords become more acquainted with the process, he said the fee waiver could sunset and the city could start charging for re-inspection.

"If it isn't too big of a deal, I would suggest that," Frey said.

Frey said other than the initial re-inspection fee that he did not think the inspection process would be too onerous compared to those in other communities. Frey and Rob Bowman of Terra Properties were two proponents for getting the ordinance passed.

Frey said he feels like the meeting was constructive, and that, overall, he hopes the ordinance will have a positive impact on property values. He also mentioned and will help to keep all landlords on a level playing field.

"Highland is a nice town. We want to keep it a nice town. I think it is a good thing to do," Frey said.

Another point that brought up some confusion was the ordinance's language around inspections at the time of sale.

Currently, the ordinance states that there must be an inspection of the property before it switches owners. But, landlords said the ordinance is unclear on whether an inspection is needed both before a property is sold, and after the sale, when the new owner finds new tenants.

An online portal where landlords could request and pay for the inspections on the city website was also suggested.

Latham said that these three components will be considered, and changes could be made to the ordinance during an upcoming council meeting. If the ordinance is changed, Latham said registered landlords will be notified.

Landlords will also get a complete list of nuisance conditions before the inspections come into being in June.

"If you don't see it in the packet, we're probably not going to do it," Wilson said.

After the meeting, landlords shared their opinions about the new program.

Austin Wilken, from Wilken Development Group Ltd., said that, once the ordinance is fine tuned, the inspections will be something good for the community. The Wilken is developing a new apartment complex in town. The firm also owns several rental properties in and out of the city. However, Wilken said the inspections will be something new for their business.

"I think it's all great. We won't have any issues on our end," Wilken said.

Kenny Thole, the owner of Thole Rentals, which has numerous rental properties in the surrounding area, agreed with Wilken.

"It's not a bad thing. Everyone has just got to get together on it," Thole said.

On the other hand, Bill Patterson, who has voiced concerns about the program before, was a little more hesitant after the meeting.

Patterson has owned properties in Highland for close to 40 years. He said he felt the meeting was a little one-sided on the city's behalf.

"I still think that the people got a lot of questions that they wanted to ask," Patterson said.

Patterson also said that if the city is serious about inspection, then it should have handed out a pamphlet with the correct information. But, he said, only time will tell for how it will turn out.

"If it goes like it's intended, it's going to be okay, I think, by the people of Highland. But if it isn't, and it goes sideways, which a lot of these things do — they start off at good intentions and go sideways — it could be a very bad thing," Patterson said.