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City councilman proposes Watertown apartment inspection program

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WATERTOWN — Following through on a campaign promise, City Councilman Stephen A. Jennings proposed that the city implement an apartment-inspection program run by the city’s code enforcement office.

Mr. Jennings raised the subject Monday night as the Watertown City Council discussed the city’s $1,415,200 federal Community Development Block Grant program. City officials told him CDBG funding cannot be used for rental inspection.

Under the CDBG program, the city can use the money for housing rehabilitation, blight remediation and economic development projects, but only if 70 percent of those benefitting are low or moderate income.

Mr. Jennings said he wants the city to consider a rental-inspection program. It would address the condition of rental properties and ensure that they are safe and clean, and that they comply with state building codes.

During last fall’s council campaign, residents told Mr. Jennings that the city should require all of the roughly 9,400 apartments in the city of Watertown to undergo inspection by the code enforcement office.

Inspections happen now if a tenant or someone else calls the city to complain about a violation. The calls primarily involve trash in yards, uncut lawns or tenant complaints about specific code problems.

Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham suggested that Mr. Jennings meet with city staff to see what it would take to establish such a program.

Councilman Joseph M. Butler Jr. agreed to work with Mr. Jennings on the project, noting that 60 percent of city residents live in rental housing.

The key would be “how to enforce it proactively,” Mr. Butler said.

Under such programs, code enforcement officers or fire department personnel are required to check rental units for code violations to ensure tenants are living in safe and healthy environments. Every apartment would be 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 program, landlords may be charged fees for initial inspections or for subsequent inspections when they fail to correct violations. Many municipalities use the inspection fees to pay for the program.

In 2001, the city looked at implementing a rental inspection program, but landlords overwhelmingly opposed the proposal and it never went any further.

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