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Landlords raise concerns over registry plan

Feb. 19, 2013 @ 12:50 AM

HUNTINGTON -- Landlords have mixed reactions about a proposed rental unit registry in Huntington that would charge a fee to cover costs associated with inspecting rental property.

Mayor Steve Williams unveiled the program during his State of the City address last week. It would require landlords to register their property with the city and pay a $50 annual fee for each unit they own. The revenue would go toward hiring an additional code enforcement officer to inspect properties at least every three years, he said.

Williams said Monday that he had already received several phone calls from landlords who had valid questions and concerns about the proposal. He plans to schedule a meeting with landlords in the next few weeks to discuss the issue further.

"We clearly need to sit down with rental property owners and outline where we want to go with this," Williams said. "They want to know how the inspections will work, and some have said that $50 might be too steep. That amount is a starting point, so I'm not wed to it.

"The main message we want to get across right now is that if you are a landlord who takes care of your property, this is not going to hurt you. But it's going to be extremely difficult for the landlords who aren't as responsible."

Although the fee at its proposed rate is projected to yield $330,000 for the city's $43.5 million budget next fiscal year, revenue is not the thrust of the proposal, Williams said. The intent of the registry and inspection program is to address quality of life and safety issues, he said. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2011 American Community Survey, 47.3 percent of Huntington's residents live in rental property.

There are tax collection and law enforcement benefits as well, the mayor said. The registration component could help the city capture business and occupation taxes that are not being collected from landlords, while the inspection component could detect rental units that are being subleased to out-of-town drug dealers, Williams said. The latter has become a problem in recent years, particularly near Marshall University, he said.

"There are some properties that we know were designed for student use only and now transients are starting to rent or are subletting them out," Williams said.

Herman Glaser, who owns 25 apartments in Huntington, said he likes the idea of a rental inspection program because it puts pressure on landlords who own substandard properties. However, he thinks the $50 annual fee for each unit is excessive.

"There's no question this cost would have to be passed on to the tenants," Glaser said. "This would force me to raise my rent by $8-$10 a month because you have to throw a vacancy factor in as well. I'm not opposed to it, but it needs a lot of fine-tuning."

Glaser offered a counterproposal in which landlords pay a fee of $30 or $35 only when their unit is inspected. He also said landlords who own several units at one location should not have to pay the full rate for each unit.

Like other city fees, Glaser said the city must be able to show rental property owners that the revenue raised from the fee would go back into providing the service. His sentiments are echoed by Mary Ann Dolin, who owns 120 rental units in Huntington.

Dolin said she's not opposed to a city rental inspection program, but she thinks the proposal introduced last week is focused more on creating new revenue to offset the city's inability to collect existing fees and taxes.

"It just irritates me that people are not responsible and the city doesn't do a good enough job going after them," Dolin said. "They turn to the responsible people and ask them to pay more. I pay my municipal fees. I pay my B and O taxes."

Ned Jones, whose Greentree Apartments leases 81 apartments in the city, said he wants more information about the proposal before developing an opinion.

"At first glance, I think it would probably be redundant for our units," he said. "Every time we renew our insurance they send inspectors in and do inspections."

Jones and other landlords also asked whether dorms at Marshall University and rental units maintained by the Huntington Housing Authority would be subject to inspections and fees. Williams responded Monday they would not because they are public entities. Private units that are subsidized by the Housing Authority, however, would fall under the program, he said.

Jones, a former state senator, noted that the freshman residence halls that opened at Marshall in 2008 were developed and constructed as part of an $82 million public-private venture managed by Capstone Development Corp. of Birmingham, Ala.

"This was a public-private partnership that I supported because I knew it would help Marshall grow, and a rising tide lifts all boats," Jones said. "But we're still competing against them, so you would expect the playing field to be as level as possible."

Follow H-D reporter Bryan Chambers on Facebook or Twitter @BryanChambersHD.

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