Councilors divided over scope, need for ‘livability’ ordinance

Scott Swanson

The question of whether Sweet Home should try to do something about rathole rentals led to extensive discussion by the City Council at its Sept. 24 meeting.

The issue has been on the council’s radar since 2016, and it reappeared in late August, when members discussed a Corvallis ordinance they are considering adapting for use to improve livability in Sweet Home residences.

The Sept. 24 discussion centered on whether state law and existing city ordinances provide officials with necessary tools to address squalid and unhealthy living conditions, or whether they should.

City Manager Ray Towry said he’s gotten “significant” feedback from the community since the issue resurfaced.

City Attorney Robert Snyder summarized a Bellingham, Wash. ordinance that authorizes city inspections of rental properties on the basis of what he described as “minimum” sanitary, structural, occupancy and other criteria. He said the inspections occur about every three years in Bellingham, a city with some 15,000 rental units.

He said a lot of the issues there tend to be smoke alarms and “decks on which the railings are not up to code. That’s where they spend a lot of their time.”

Towry said he’s heard that rental management firms already do pre-occupancy inspections on rental units in the Sweet Home area, but he had not confirmed that as of the meeting.

Also, he said, city staff are working on a list cross-referencing livability code elements with existing city codes which, he said, would be available for the council at its Oct. 8 meeting.

Councilors remained divided over whether the city should get involved in policing the interiors of rentals, and if so, how far to go.

Councilor Lisa Gourley said she’d reviewed state landlord-tenant law and found it “pretty specific.”

“If that’s already there, it doesn’t matter how many times you talk about it, either you’re going to comply or you’re not,” she said. “I don’t want to do anything that’s going to penalize all of the good players because someone wants to live in squalor. If there’s already existing language, I see no reason to keep compounding that.”

She noted that landlords could be penalized for “bringing someone in off the street that otherwise wouldn’t have housing,” she said.

Councilman Cortney Nash said that unless a child is involved, or it’s an issue for public safety officials trying to access a home, “I don’t think it’s any of our business, when we’ve got plenty of things littering our streets right now.”

Mayor Greg Mahler agreed that he didn’t want to “be telling people how to live inside their house,” but “I think we need something because there’s a persistent need.”

He noted that the city already has ordinances that aren’t being aggressively enforced.

“We’ve passed an ordinance that people can’t park RV’s, but I see blocks now where there are one, two, three, six, 10 RV’s.”

He added that he was concerned about the exterior appearance of homes as well.

Councilor James Goble said he also has concerns about inspecting rentals.

“I don’t think that’s our place,” he said. I don’t think we have manpower for that. That’s just something else on the plate for someone to do. If someone moves into a place and is trying to get help, and the landlord doesn’t do something and they come to city, then they’re asking city for help. Maybe we can take a step out there, the first step toward helping.”

“I don’t think we should inspect somebody’s house before they move in. If we can visually see that somehing’s run down, we have ordinances against that.”

Councilor Dave Trask, a longtime volunteer with the Sweet Home Fire and Ambulance District, repeated concerns he’d expressed in previous discussions, about the safety of firefighters and police officers who enter squalid living conditions.

“You do not know what you’re going to run into,” he said. “That’s my biggest concern.”

He said he was particularly concerned about the lack of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, particularly in mobile homes.

“We have deaths all the time in manufactured homes because they don’t have a smoke detector,” he said.

“I think we need to do something. In a house that’s going to be rented, I don’t know why we can’t have the opportunity to go in there and say, ‘you don’t have a smoke detector, you don’t have carbon monoxide, you don’t have a water heater. You don’t have egresses’ – and I’m telling you, a lot of them don’t.

“They’ve blocked the door. If you look at them, you gotta to be able to get out of a window. You can’t have it nailed shut. The floors can’t be gone. You have to have that stuff. It’s in the ordinances. To me, we should be able to enforce that Oregon statute.”

“If we don’t do something, who does?” asked councilor Diane Gerson.

Trask said when firefighters conduct an investigation after a report of smoke, “you go in there, not one smoke detector is going off. Does the Fire Department have the option of turning them in, or does it have to be the tenant?”

Gourley asked whether “is it possible the tenants themselves are blocking the doors, nailing windows shut? We’re rally getting into the weeds with this.”

“We’re getting into lives,” Trask responded. “Somebody will die because of this. I bet you there’s been 20 deaths in city of Sweet Home in manufactured homes that are not subject to these laws.”

Gourley replied that negligence is “something we cannot regulate effectively from here.”

Bill Whipple, a Mountain View Avenue resident, told council members the city needs to enforce the laws it has and that the livability discussion sounded to him like a revenue generator.

“If seems like you guys are trying to add other laws that aren’t going to be enforced. This livability certificate for these houses, is there a charge for that?”

Gerson responded that she wouldn’t be in favor of “attaching any cost to it, from my perspective.”

Whipple noted that earlier in the conversation there was a reference to the need for staff to enforce livability rules.

“How are you going to pay for that? That’s lot of money, coming out of my pocket, your pocket.

“If there was a problem with residents, if I were renting a place, a problem with fire or smoke detectors, I’d let the landlord know. It seems like you’re spending lot of time on things that aren’t necessary, just to generate a lot of revenue.”

Mahler ended the discussion by urging council members to review the Bellingham ordinance.

“Got through it and say, ‘I don’t want to go down this road, we don’t need these things,’ or ‘this is something I want to push forward with.’”