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Council needs to ensure cure for substandard housing isn’t worse than problem


November 29, 2016

Sweet Home city councilors want to crack down on substandard housing and slumlords.

The council is considering ideas with the goal of ensuring that tenants have quality housing. They have in front of them an example from Salem and Keizer, which annually inspect and license multi-family rental housing.

Inspection fees pay for the program. Naturally, those costs are passed on to the renter.

Councilor Jeff Goodwin has suggested that renters would be happy to pay this cost for the assurance of quality housing.

While we’re certainly eager to see landlords treat their tenants fairly, this idea veers perilously close to a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Forcing landlords to pay for city officials to inspect their properties appears to run quite contrary to “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures” – the Fourth Amendment.

As we said, we are concerned that tenants be treated right and we find slumlords’ self-serving, even cruel treatment of the folks who live in their buildings objectionable, to say the least.

But this isn’t just about the slumlords. It’s about renters too.

Councilor Greg Mahler has expressed concerns about conditions in some local rental units. In a recent council discussion of the issue, he cited the example of a house in town where the door barely opened. Ten people lived under one roof. Trash covered the floor, which had holes in it. Mahler said it didn’t have running water.

To put it bluntly, a big element of this scenario is renters’ irresponsibility. If a tenant is, shall we say, perversely inclined to live in squalor, should the landlord be blamed? While not excusing actual slumlords, whose behavior could be described as equally perverse, why should conscientious landlords – who are actually victims in their own right – be held accountable for problems they haven’t caused?

In discussing the inspection and licensing concept, Mahler has said he wants to include these kinds of houses too, in which renters, not the landlords, often are the clear problem. At that point, the city wouldn’t even be pretending to be about protecting the rights of poor tenants. It would essentially be going after poor tenants.

This is a town where 25 percent of students in one elementary school are considered homeless. In most cases, they’re not without a roof. Their families live with other families. They live this way because they have to in order to get by, but our council seems to want to make housing more expensive.

We certainly recognize that our council isn’t alone in pursuing this. Seems like everybody is. And courts have noticed.

A 1967 Supreme Court case involving San Francisco held that inspections must be “reasonable” in terms of their justification and execution, but under that ruling, penalties such as fines for refusing to allow warrantless inspections are more likely to be struck down, which rips the teeth out of such an ordinance.

Courts in Ohio and Georgia have handed down recent rulings that similar programs violate the Fourth Amendment.

Forget the legal part of this, which should put the matter to rest immediately. Let’s talk about what we would get from this.

If the council were to adopt a licensing and inspection program, the majority of our households, with no probable cause to believe they would have violations, would already be in compliance. We would needlessly charge renters more money for another layer of bureaucracy to deal with a problem that has no real solution. Not to put it too pointedly, but some people are slobs and will never be anything but. They will tear up any residence in which they dwell.

This ordinance might help a few people, but there are other solutions, some in place already, that are far less expensive, less intrusive and more constitutional.

First, profit motive and opportunity are already driving improvements. Nandina Street is cleaning up. Police statistics support this. A drive down the street demonstrates it. Apartment renovations there are the single largest force behind the facelift.

On Willow Street, one of the most disgusting dwellings we’ve ever seen is long gone and replaced by mobile homes – a marked improvement in the area.

Second, laws are already in place protecting tenants’ rights. The landlord is required by law to get that hanging door fixed or replaced that busted window.

Third, tenants could ask the city for an inspection if they’re concerned about the conditions they’re living in. That would require the council to develop a procedure for responding to such requests.

Fourth, cities could incentivize landlords to improve their properties by offering seals of approval or certification for meeting certain levels of quality. Again, the council would need to come up with a plan for that.

The last two options actually address Goodwin’s concerns without running the risk of violating the constitution. They would help protect the health and safety of renters without sacrificing the civil liberties of the renter or the landlord.

Unfortunately, they don’t address Mahler’s concern with slobs who won’t pay their bills. The fact such exist and likely always will is no reason to implement warrantless searches. If there’s a real problem, the city should have probable cause and get a warrant to inspect the property.

Legislating morality works poorly, if at all, and the cost – feeding the beast of government – is often greater than the benefit.

The council should choose another alternative to warrantless, unconstitutional, searches.


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