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Proposal to inspect Watertown’s rental housing gets varied reception

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None of the approximately 9,400 apartments in the city of Watertown will get an inspection by the code enforcement office — unless a tenant or someone else calls the city to complain about a possible violation.

That’s because the city does not have a rental inspection program, though many other municipalities in the state annually inspect rental units.

A dozen years ago, the city nearly implemented such a program, but it fell one vote shy of passage by the City Council.

This year, the issue popped up again during the recent primary for the Watertown City Council, when failed candidate Rodney J. LaFave proposed an inspection program. Mr. LaFave maintained that a self-funded rental inspection program would address the condition of rental properties and ensure that properties are safe, clean and in compliance with state building codes.

Deteriorating rental property has remained a campaign issue among the four candidates vying for two council seats in the Nov. 10 general election.

In the rental property business since 1968, landlord Perry D. McIntosh, 75, who owns 50 units in nine buildings in Watertown, likes the idea of a rental inspection program. He acknowledged that he has had his share of problems with tenants trashing apartments and with trying to keep his apartments presentable. A program with code enforcement officials entering apartments might be beneficial, Mr. McIntosh said.

“They could come into my place anytime,” he said. “I’d welcome them.”

That comment may surprise other landlords, who generally oppose inspections of their property.

Mr. McIntosh is currently renovating four units, two of which need the work because tenants left damage, and the others because he thought it was time to update them.

As for landlords who would oppose such a program, Mr. McIntosh said, “sometimes they get ridiculous.”

Law works elsewhere

Communities across the state have had rental inspection programs in place for years; Geneva, Auburn, Ogdensburg, Cortland and Ithaca are some of the municipalities with their own variations.

Under such programs, code enforcement officers or fire department personnel are required to check rental units for code violations to make sure tenants are living in safe and healthy environments. Inspections can be completed on a yearly basis or every two or three years, depending on the terms of the law. Every apartment is inspected for a laundry list of items, including broken windows and doors, pest infestations, safe egress from the building and working plumbing, electrical and heating systems.

Depending on the municipality, landlords may be charged fees for initial inspections or for subsequent inspections when they fail to correct the violations. Many municipalities use the inspection fees to pay for the program.

In Geneva, the city’s Fire Department has handled rental inspections since 1995. Landlords must obtain an operating permit before they start renting property. Apartments are subjected to inspections every two years, and landlords have 30 days to correct violations. After that, they can be fined, said Fire Chief Michael A. Combs.

“It works out well,” he said.

In the city of Auburn, the code enforcement office is in charge of the inspections. Landlords are charged a $50 registration fee per unit and must pay another $50 if they fail to correct a violation. Also, a second inspection must be conducted, said Brian L. Hicks, senior code enforcement officer.

With 58 percent of the residential property in Auburn devoted to rental units, the two officers in his department have a big job, Mr. Hicks said. His office gets its share of landlords who don’t like the program, he said. “It doesn’t make me lose sleep at night,” Mr. Hicks said.

For the past four years, the city of Cortland has tried to implement a rental-permit program, but a dozen landlords have fought it in court, saying the program violates the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution by allowing code officers to access buildings without a warrant.

TOUGH SELL IN THE CITY

The city of Watertown’s code enforcement supervisor, Shawn R. McWayne, said it would be a significant undertaking if the city enacted a rental-inspection program.

“I’m not sure how we would do it,” Mr. McWayne said.

The city’s code enforcement office checks on rental property only when a complaint is received. The calls primarily involve trash in yards, uncut lawns or tenant complaints about specific code problems in their apartments.

Under the inspection program proposed in 2001, landlords would have been required to register their buildings before renting out spaces, which then would have been subjected to annual inspections. Landlords would have been charged a one-time building registration fee before they could rent out their property.

While Watertown’s proposal was modeled after a similar program in the village of Potsdam, Mr. McWayne said city officials never put together any details of what the program would entail. It died before that could happen, he said.

In the end, landlords overwhelmingly opposed the inspections, contending that the proposed law did not include any language about tenants being responsible for damage. After three public hearings, it looked like the program would pass by a 3-2 vote, but Councilman Jeffrey M. Smith and former Mayor Joseph M. Butler pulled their support. The proposal was defeated, and that was the last anyone in the city heard of it, Mr. McWayne said.

Since the proposal never got very far, Mr. McWayne said, he doesn’t know how much such a program would cost, how it would be paid for or how much more staff it would take to implement it. It would be up to the City Council to decide whether to explore the issue, he said.

The candidates speak

In the council race, only incumbent Jeffrey M. Smith said he does not think a rental inspection program would be a good idea.

Mr. Smith now takes a “been there, done that” attitude.

“We looked at it,” he said. “We’ve discussed it. There was no public support. I haven’t heard anything on it 10 years.”

Complaints about the inspections and questions about a law’s constitutionality give Mr. Smith reservations about starting a program, he said, adding that landlords and tenants don’t want one.

“People don’t want the government intruding on their lives,” he said.

The other three council candidates — incumbent Teresa R. Macaluso and challengers Cody J. Horbacz and Stephen A. Jennings — are keeping an open mind about a rental-inspection program. They said something needs to be done to make sure rental property is kept up to code.

“I think it might be a good idea,” Ms. Macaluso said, adding that she worries more about rental property owned by absentee landlords than units owned by people who live in the area.

While she echoes some of Mr. Smith’s concerns, Ms. Macaluso said Watertown should at least look at how a program could help solve getting apartments up to code.

Mr. Horbacz agreed, but said the devil would be in the details.

Mr. Jennings said such a program could easily tie into what he has discussed in his campaign about addressing blight in neighborhoods. He has proposed getting city, school and law enforcement officials and local organizations together to find ways to reduce blight, poverty, crime and low education achievement.

“I think it could mitigate some of the problems we’re having,” Mr. Jennings said, adding that fees could make it a self-sustaining program. “I think it could help our community.”

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