Mount Holly Springs could have a rental property inspection program up and running by next June.
A panel of borough officials briefed landlords Thursday on a draft ordinance that could go before council for a vote on Nov. 13 after a public hearing on Oct. 26.
If adopted, the ordinance could take effect in January, clearing the way for the borough to either train someone in-house to conduct the inspections or contract out the service through a third-party provider.
The ordinance sets up a program where all 628 rental units within the borough are inspected once every three years. Borough Manager Tom Day mapped out the units into three zones, one for each year of the cycle.
Zone 1 inspections could begin next June and cover units on either side of Baltimore Avenue from the borough line south to Butler Street. This would include all streets between the western border of the borough and Mountain Creek.
Zone 1 also includes any units along Mill Street from where it intersects with Baltimore north and east to the borough line and on streets adjoining Mill including Fairfield, Center, East, South, Peach and Orange.
Fees not set
Under the ordinance, a landlord would only be able to rent a unit if it passes inspection and is issued an occupancy license. Each landlord would be charged a fee for each rental unit to offset the costs of the license and the inspection.
To give the ordinance “teeth,” borough council could adopt the International Property Maintenance Code, which details the standards for rental units. A draft inspection checklist includes items related to security, fire safety, adequate lighting, adequate ventilation, a check for chipped or peeling paint and a check for signs of rodent infestation.
Each item is marked either pass or fail with directions given in the comment section of the checklist on what needs to be done to correct the deficiencies. A separate fee will be charged for each re-inspection to verify whether the landlord had fixed the problem.
No license could be issued and a license could be revoked for failure to pay water, sewer or trash fees or real estate taxes.
The borough has yet to determine the fee structure for each inspection and re-inspection. This would depend on whether council decides to use in-house staff or a third-party provider.
Rebecca Yearick, downtown manager, told the landlords Thursday fees across Cumberland County range from about $40 to $85.
Checking the checklist
Louis Gelsinger rents out two apartments next to his home on Chestnut Street. The building is older and he is concerned the program could result in expensive upgrades for the units to pass inspection.
The re-inspection fee should be lower than the inspection fee to take into account the change in the scope of work, Gelsinger said. While the inspection looks at all the items on the checklist, the re-inspection only focuses on what came up as deficiencies.
Mike and Linda Bixler own three apartment units along Chestnut Street. They had a chance to review an early draft of the inspection checklist.
“A lot of the things are basic anyway,” Linda Bixler said. “Most people should be able to comply with them.” She and her husband are concerned about the borough’s ability to add items to the checklist, increasing the chances of the property failing inspection and driving up the costs of correcting deficiencies.
While borough officials maintain the inspection program would be self-sustaining, Linda Bixler is worried revenue from fees may not be enough to cover unanticipated overhead costs. “How are they going to pay for it?” she asked.
Every change in the checklist could mean a different repair or upgrade to comply with the new rules, Mike Bixler said. While some work could be done on the spot, other work could mean hiring a contractor.
Several landlords asked the panel whether the borough would offer a discount on the inspection fee for multiple rental units. Yearick told them the fee per unit would be the same no matter how many units the landlord owns.
Councilmen Matthew Hockley said the borough will work with landlords to try and have clusters of rental units in the same zone inspected on the same day or same time frame.
Property owner Annan Hollinger has rental units in more than one zone. She asked the panel if it would be possible for the borough to inspect all the properties belonging to a landlord no matter what zone they were in.
The answer was no because the borough needs to be systematic to avoid confusion. “We want to keep it zone one, zone two, zone three,” Day said. “We have to be able to track this.”
Day said skipping around to different zones increases the risk of something being missed.
Other landlords asked why the borough was singling out landlords with its inspection program while leaving out private homeowners.
Though there are no plans to inspect the interiors of owner-occupied homes, the borough will be holding everyone accountable by adopting IPMC standards, which address exterior property maintenance issues, Day said.
The ordinance would allow landlords to file a grievance before an appeals board. While there is talk of making it a three- or five-member board, its composition has not been determined, Yearick said. Borough solicitor Mark Allshouse has been asked to weigh in on this issue.
If adopted, the ordinance would require landlords living more than 30 miles from the borough to designate an agent or manager to serve as a contact person.
Irene Roberts and her husband rent out a single-family detached dwelling to a couple on Chestnut Street. For years, they managed this property from Italy, Germany and Australia while her husband was on active duty in the military. Now that he is retired, they live in Williamsburg, Virginia, about 250 miles from Mount Holly Springs. While the couple does not object to inspections, they take issue with the 30-mile requirement.
“If we can manage a property from three countries, why can’t we manage it from a different state?” Roberts asked. She said they don’t want to hire an agent or manager because it would force them to go back on their word and increase the rent on the tenants.
In talking with borough officials, the Roberts were told the agent or manager could be a friend, family member or someone else they can trust to handle an emergency. They plan to approach a neighbor. Even with that clarification, they have misgivings.
“We want everything to come to us,” said Irene Roberts, adding the only exception would be if the authorities could not reach them on their cellphones. The couple already has ties to local contractors who could fix problems with the property.
It is critical first-responders have someone local they could contact in an emergency, said Tom Day, who is also the borough police chief. He cited as an example the case of a tenant who was found dead in a rental unit. The person had moved in recently. There was no information and police could not reach the landlord who lived far away.
In the case of a house fire, first-responders would need to know who lives in an apartment unit and whether the person is elderly or handicapped, Day said.
The inspection program and the ordinance is an outgrowth of a three-year review by borough council’s Health, Safety and Welfare Committee. Council members looked at complaints filed by tenants and landlords and gathered input from other residents, borough staff, service providers and emergency responders.
The committee took on this task after a 2014 community survey process identified a rental responsibility ordinance as a high priority towards making Mount Holly Springs a better place to live.
The goal was to develop an ordinance that presented the least amount of burden to landlords and the most benefit for the safety and welfare of tenants, Councilman Matthew Hockley said.
“This would not be heavy-handed,” Councilwoman Pam Still said. She owns rental property in the borough.
To arrive at its ordinance, the committee used a template provided by Cumberland County as a model and combined it with similar ordinances from other municipalities that have been tested in the court system, Yearick said.