Detroit proposal toughens rules on landlords

Christine MacDonald, and Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

The city of Detroit is promising a crackdown on the thousands of landlords who have not gotten rental inspections, including preventing owners from collecting rent or evicting tenants if the landlords have not complied with city rules, officials announced Wednesday.

Rentals are supposed to pass yearly inspections — by obtaining a certificate of compliance — to ensure they meet safety standards. But city officials admit they have let the majority of landlords ignore the rules for more than a decade. Last year, just 4,174 addresses went through that inspection process.

The goal is to have all rentals registered in two years, Mayor Mike Duggan said.

“This is something we haven’t tried before but the one thing I’m sure of is we’re not going to just sit by anymore and let landlords in this community ignore the city code,” Duggan said Wednesday afternoon.

“... We’re going to be much tougher on the bad landlords.”

It’s unclear how many rentals are registered in Detroit, though the U.S. Census Bureau estimates the city has 136,000 rental units. City officials estimate that 50,000 rental properties have not been inspected.

The city said it has hired seven additional inspectors and contracted with three companies to get inspections done more quickly. And tenants eventually will be able to find out online if their rental was inspected. Renters soon will be able to file complaints about landlords online, the release said.

The crackdown will come as part of tougher ordinance language proposed by Councilman Andre Spivey, which must be approved by the City Council. Spivey said he hopes it is passed before July.

The most controversial of the changes will be stopping landlords who haven’t been inspected from collecting rent or evicting tenants.

As part of that policy, the city will be divided into five zones with different compliance deadlines. By the end of each zone’s six-month compliance period, the landlords who don’t follow the rules would not be able to collect rent or evict tenants for non-payment.

The city will phase in the rules in a handful of ZIP codes at a time until all 28 ZIP codes are covered. The city hopes to accomplish that by spring 2019, Duggan said.

Chief Judge Nancy Blount, the top judge of 36th District Court, which handles evictions, declined comment Wednesday, only saying: “We haven’t had an opportunity to look at it.”

If landlords don’t have a certificate of compliance, Duggan said, then under the law they are not legally renting property in Detroit.

“While I would not guarantee what a judge would say, it’s hard for me to imagine a judge ruling that somebody who is not legally following the law and not legally entitled to rent is somehow entitled to collect the payments,” he said. “But we’ll see how it plays out.”

Landlords are skeptical Detroit can legally prevent evictions or has the capacity to inspect every rental in the city.

“There is no track record that they will even be able to accomplish this,” said Chris Garner, owner of Garner Properties, a Taylor-based company that manages about 220 single family homes for investors in Detroit.

He said the costs of dealing with Detroit City Hall and other challenges of operating in the city, like rampant theft, have pushed many of his clients out of the business. In 2014, his firm managed nearly 500 homes in the city.

Two months ago, he said he got verbal confirmation from city officials that two of his houses passed inspection. But he has yet to get copies of the certificate of compliance.

Among the other ordinance changes proposed:

■Withholding certificates of compliance to landlords who are more than six months delinquent on property taxes and owe more than $1,000.

■Reducing how often landlords who follow the rules have to be reinspected. Those who have paid taxes and have no blight violations could get on a two-year inspection schedule for multi-family properties, and every three years for one- to two-family rentals.

Garner said he was glad to hear the city moving to reduce the inspection schedule from one to three years for single family homes.

But the city is keeping its yearly lead risk assessment requirement, which can cost a minimum of $450 a year. Landlords who fully remove lead from homes don’t have to meet the requirement, but that can cost thousands. Many landlords opt for what are called “interim controls,” such as making sure paint is not chipping.

While making sure lead is not a problem in homes, Garner said the frequency of the costly lead risk assessments are excessive to landlords, on top of thousands lost to theft and high property taxes.