Property owners who are tired of nuisance trash in their neighborhoods caused by renters should consider doing the unthinkable — side with landlords against city code enforcement and its policies. It’s unthinkable because landlords are typically portrayed as the problem more so than ones with a solution. But city residents and landlords actually want the same thing — too have those responsible for creating a neighborhood mess clean it up. And soon.
For years rental property owners have complained they are unfairly targeted by code enforcers — particularly when it comes to outdoor storage violations. When tenants turn their rental properties into garbage sites, it’s landlords who face criminal charges and fines. Even if those are dismissed, those charges stay on their records.
Landlords say this is unfair and argue they shouldn’t be liable for the criminal actions of another.
But they also face an additional hurdle in that landlords can’t raise a finger to remedy the problem since the refuse on their property legally belongs to someone else. Sure, landlords can threaten tenants with eviction, but jumping through the legal hoops can take up to three months or more — especially with the current lack of judges. And if a landlord makes a clerical error through the court filing process, it’s back to square one.
By that time the landlord has already been dragged into court to plead their case as to why they shouldn’t face up to $2,500 in fines to correct a problem they can’t legally fix. And those reasons aren’t enough to stop the commonwealth attorney from pushing for fines to be levied against them anyway. It’s then up to a zoning court judge’s discretion whether fines should be levied or not. If you’ve ever been in traffic court, you know pleading to a judge for mercy is not a position you want to find yourself in.
These problems and others faced by landlords could easily be avoided by code enforcement simply doing what they’re already permitted to do: serve tenants for the code violations they caused.Code violations could be remedied sooner by taking violators to court and — if warranted — issuing them fines if the problem isn’t remedied in a timely manner. As it stands, renters have no reason to clean up the property in a reasonable time, since it’s always their landlord facing fines instead of them.
Dan Webb, Code Compliance Coordinator for the city, admits his enforcers always go after the landlords rather than the tenant. He recently stated during court that city officials at one time made an attempt to cite tenants, but found they couldn’t get information on them due to unresponsive landlords in three separate instances. But that reasoning is pretty weak. Sensible landlords wouldn’t choose to be taken to court for the mess their tenant caused. And if they did, at least that would be their choice.
Currently, landlords are denied requests to have their tenant cited for outdoor storage instead of them — even when offering the necessary information. Code enforcers simply refuse to go after tenants. The fact is, officials target landlords because it’s easy. And elected officials see no reason to change the practice because unfairly going after landlords is still more popular than putting pressure on renters who are often financially strapped.
Currently, Roanoke’s Real Estate Investors of Virginia (REI) group is funding a legal challenge against the city in order to change the current practice of only citing landlords on outdoor storage violations when officials know tenants are responsible. Attorneys are currently writing their legal arguments and are scheduled to meet again at 2 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 2.
But no matter what the court’s outcome, residents should take a stand and side with landlords on this matter. Both pay taxes to the city and deserve not only fair treatment, but also genuine efforts by officials to end the long term stockpiling of garbage in our neighborhoods.
Jeff Schmucker is a former journalist, current property manager and officer with REI Virginia. He can be reached at [email protected]