MICHIGAN CITY – Local landlords will have to add their properties to a city registry and submit to thorough inspections if a new ordinance passes the Michigan City Common Council.
Councilwoman Sharon Carnes introduced her proposal Tuesday, noting that in addition to improving the city’s aging housing stock, as well as the public health, such a registry is a requirement of the $2.3 million Lead-based Paint Hazard Reduction Program Grant the city received from the federal government.
"As a City Council person, probably the No. 1 complaint I get is about dilapidated and deteriorating houses,” Carnes said. “When those houses are owner-occupied, Code Enforcement typically works with people to get them up to code, and I have seen that be successful in many cases.
“Unfortunately, when it's a landlord situation, a lot of times it's difficult to identify the landlord, and by the time we work through the process with Code Enforcement, many times the homes are so deteriorated that we end up having to demolish them.”
Carnes reminded those listening that both property owners and renters can have their homes inspected for lead at no cost.
Multiple members of Organized and United Residents of Michigan City (OURMC) attended the meeting to speak in favor of the ordinance.
Rob Johnson, who serves on the Michigan City Committee on Lead, noted about half of city residents are renters, and half are considered "working poor." He estimated hundreds of residents who qualify for Section VIII assistance are forced to live in unsafe or unhealthy conditions because landlords do not accept vouchers.
“What people at the Housing Authority were saying is that, right now, a lot of people in Michigan City are so desperate to find somewhere to live that they'll go somewhere – even if they can't use a voucher – just to get a roof over their head,” he said.
“And there's a certain segment of the landlord community that's perfectly happy to provide substandard housing for a price, not fix it up, and let people live in it. ... I think that's what makes this ordinance a really good thing is it basically brings everybody onto the same page. No longer can you get away with providing substandard housing.”
Marisa Chaples – an OURMC member and a renter – said she generally supports the ordinance, but would like to see a few changes. First, she thinks landlords who live onsite of their rental properties should not be exempt.
Additionally, she suggested that if tenants are displaced because a landlord must make repairs to become compliant, the cost of that displacement should be paid by the landlord or from fees paid by landlords who are noncompliant.
"This is something that could be a game-changer for a lot of folks who are renting, and we're happy to participate in this process,” said Amy Straka of OURMC, noting some 15,000 people in Michigan City would directly benefit.
She recalled Mayor Ron Meer introducing such an ordinance when he was on the City Council in 2007, but said it failed because several landlords complained. The following year, despite resistance, Straka said the city successfully passed an ordinance requiring landlords to install smoke detectors in rental properties.
"And now, providing smoke alarms is just part of normal daily business when you're a landlord,” she said. “And after this passes, maintaining your property to a safe, livable standard will also be part of normal daily business – or you'll be out of business."
Bill Schaefer, a city resident and landlord of multiple properties, said he supports the measure, but asked the council to consider several things – like whether current city staff will be charged with handling registration and inspections, or whether new staff should be hired; and whether the city could realistically provide free inspections.
Three other landlords spoke in opposition.
Doug Sims, president of the Northwest Indiana Landlords Association, said he lives in Michigan City and has been a landlord in the Westside neighborhood for 20 years. He recalled multiple instances in which tenants caused issues that might make a property noncompliant, and questioned what recourse that would leave landlords.
“I don't believe the input of property owners has actually been placed into this document; and I believe the motivation is that grant," he said.
Michigan City resident and landlord Mark Sherman agreed, telling the council, "It's in your best interest to come and talk to the landlords and work out a solution to the problem. Free [inspections] don't always end up free. And if it's not free to us, you can guarantee that we're going to raise rent."
Councilman Ron Hamilton was skeptical of the effectiveness of such an ordinance, similar to ones on the books in South Bend, Merrillville and Valparaiso. He called it redundant.
“They say [registries and inspections] are effective, but why aren't we enforcing the Property Maintenance Standard Act for the city, or even the state?" Hamilton asked.
"You see houses with electrical wiring hanging out – the state has statutes on rentals on electrical, HVAC, windows, that kind of stuff. They all have to reach certain standards. If you see something, turn it in."
But council members Bryant Dabney and Candice Silvas requested to be added as co-sponsors of Carnes’ ordinance.
Dabney, who lives in Eastport, said he’s familiar with bad landlords and finds the issue “extremely, extremely important.”
"In my mind, we have to find a way to make this work,” he said. “...We're not going to try and rush this through, jam this through. We are going to bring in the landlords that have the experience of doing this, and make sure we put the product out there that's best for Michigan City."
Carnes said she intends to ask the mayor to add two more positions to the Code Enforcement Department to handle responsibilities outlined by the ordinance, as well as new part-time assistance for the Legal Department.
And she anticipates multiple workshops involving landlords, tenants and the public to be conducted before the ordinance is finalized and put to a vote.
Council President Don Przybylinski assigned the ordinance to the Planning and Zoning Committee, and scheduled it for second reading at the July 16 council meeting.
A copy of the ordinance, as currently written, can be found at http://www.emichigancity.com/cityhall/council/pdf/agenda070219.pdf