Livability proposal gives council some pause

Sean C. Morgan

The idea of taking on oversight of the interior of rentals homes didn’t sit well with some Sweet Home City Council members last week during a discussion of a Corvallis ordinance they are considering adapting for use to improve livability in Sweet Home residences.

The council first discussed the Corvallis ordinance in 2016 but took no action. Corvallis had passed the ordinance the previous year. The council did not return to the topic until last week during its regular meeting on Aug. 27.

Sweet Home Municipal Code already addresses many of the same issues addressed by the 39-page Corvallis ordinance, said City Attorney Robert Snyder.

The first 13 pages of the Corvallis ordinances are the nuts and bolts – general provisions, processes and definitions. A second section covers mainly regulations that apply to the exterior parts of buildings and real property, Snyder said. Another 14-page section covers enforcement of the ordinance.

Seven pages cover the interior of rental properties, Snyder said. The provisions in that section would be an addition to existing Sweet Home ordinances.

The section covering the exterior can be reviewed by the council to see which ones councilors would like to adopt, while keeping in mind that Sweet Home Municipal Code already covers a number of those regulations.

The big question is whether the city wants to take on the responsibility for regulating the interior of rental homes, Snyder said. Right now, that is governed by state landlord-tenant law.

City Manager Ray Towry told councilors that he spoke with the Corvallis city manager.

“He feels the ordinance has been incredibly successful,” Towry said, but he said he has five people in a department to enforce the ordinance.

“You would be putting work on the books that we do not have the capacity to tackle,” Towry said. Additionally, he told the council that it would meet resistance in the community about the city going into homes.

Exterior regulations are something the staff and council will need to think about, Towry said.

Snyder added: “If you do have an enforcement, it’s going to have to be somebody that’s trained for what you want.

“So the difference (between the ordinances in Sweet Home and Corvallis) is going to be entering someone’s home, rental home?” asked Councilor Dave Trask.

Snyder told him that was the big difference.

Mayor Greg Mahler asked whether the city doesn’t have a way to check inside a residence?

The city has building codes, Snyder replied.

Mahler asked what the city can do about “bugs” moving from one home to another.

That’s a different issue, Snyder said. Smells and bugs are issues with the exterior, and the city has ways to deal with it – “There usually is a remedy for that.”

While he was employed as a technician for CenturyLink, Trask said, “I cannot tell you how many times I went into a place, and I decided not to.”

There were places where he could not put his knee on the floor through the trash, Trask said, noting that police officers, firefighters and medics deal with it too.

“To me, it just seems a landlord should be held accountable for those things,” he said, adding he would like more information from Corvallis about how that’s working, and then the council can make the call whether to hire someone to deal with enforcing the ordinance in rental properties.

Mahler noted that it would take fewer new employees, based on the difference in population size between Corvallis and Sweet Home.

Councilor Lisa Gourley said Sweet Home has people who own rentals where the mess is not theirs, and this ordinance would make them responsible for what their renters are doing.

In enforcing this, she wondered whether the city wouldn’t end up with more people living in the streets.

Councilor Susan Coleman said she has concerns about sending a city employee into rentals.

Councilor Cortney Nash questioned whether the city has a right to say how someone should live – unless it’s a question of bugs, for example.

That’s a responsibility that should fall on someone else, he said.

Oregon law has made it easier for tenants to deal with landlord issues, Coleman said.

“I agree with some of that stuff,” Trask said. “It’s going to be tough to go into somebody’s home, (but) there’s no reason to have a filthy, dirty house.”

If landlords aren’t checking, “that’s on them,” he said. They’re required to provide things like hot water and doors that open, for example. “I’m concerned about those things too.”

It’s a risk to police officers every time they have to enter one of those homes, Trask said. “I think our community could be cleaned up a lot if we started on the outside part.”

Mahler, who, like Trask, is a volunteer firefighter, said he was more interested in the outside of the houses, but he recalled answering an emergency call in which firefighters couldn’t get into a house at all.

The Sweet Home Fire and Ambulance District, he said, recently had two ambulances out thanks to bugs.

The ordinance would penalize people, Gourley said. Many of these are people who are obviously distressed even if they don’t recognize it.

“What you really want is for them to clean it up,” she said. “Penalizing and imposing more onto them increases that burden.”

Towry said he and Snyder could work with Legal Aid, finding a way to make it more available to Sweet Home residents, and the city’s communications staff to put together some documents the city could provide to renters, so they can understand their options as tenants and what landlords are required to do.

It could be something the city includes periodically with water bills, he said.

“We can definitely take this and tweak it,” Mahler said. He is concerned that a developer might come to Sweet Home, see the eyesores and not come back until the issues are addressed.

Towry suggested looking at situations in which people are negatively affecting their neighbors.

Present at the meeting were councilors Nash, Coleman, Gourley, Mahler, Diane Gerson and Trask. James Goble was absent.