Is inspection program a burden on landlords or bulwark against blight?

MERIDEN — City officials point to the certificate of compliance program as a model for other cities that protects tenants from living in unsafe and unhealthy apartments.

The program calls for inspections of every rental unit in the city every two years. Some landlords, including a city councilor, say the program places an unfair burden on good landlords who must make time for inspections and re-inspections, and are handed a list of cosmetic repairs. They say they fear the red tape steers investors away from the city at a time when it is trying to attract new housing to downtown.

Democratic City Councilor Steven Iovanna owns six rental units in the city and said the automatic inspections mean coordinating with the tenant and the inspector. Then he’s handed a list of things that have to be repaired or replaced. He cited a sink base and an older floor that had to be replaced and was told he had to repaint.

“Now the city is saying, I gotta find that money,” Iovanna said.

After paying property taxes and water and sewer bills, most landlords are left with a small monthly profit per unit and are responsible for keeping buildings up to code, Iovanna said.

Fellow landlord Ross Gulino said each inspection costs $25 per unit, which could be better spent to establish a revolving loan fund to help landlords make necessary repairs.

Gulino also criticized the city’s blight ordinance for levying heavy fines on landlords who can’t make timely repairs. Banks aren’t making loans and extending lines of credit for improvements the way they used to, and longtime landlords are losing property. A better solution, according to Gulino and Iovanna, is for the city to make small loans to landlords.

“If the city puts the property in its crosshairs, those fines keep accruing,” Gulino said. “It’s set up to take people’s property.”

Tenant complaints and code inspections are better mechanisms for resolving serious defects, such as those that led to the rear facade crumbling at 78 E. Main St. recently and structural concerns at 13 Cook Ave., Gulino said. Both apartment buildings had absentee landlords and went into foreclosure.

Director of Development and Enforcement Dominick Caruso defends the certificate of compliance program as a model for other cities, and said the inspections are not taking the department’s four inspectors away from more immediate problems.

“It’s necessary,” Caruso said. “If you do not have (inspections) every two years, who knows how much deterioration can occur. There is a responsibility to ownership.”

Caruso said if the cost of making needed repairs puts a landlord over the top, then perhaps they shouldn’t be in the property rental business.

The 30-year-old, certificate of compliance program has the backing of city officials and neighborhood leaders who see it as a way to prevent blight and keep landlords involved in their properties. He points to New Haven as an example of a city that modeled its program on Meriden’s.

“I challenge them to go to those towns (without compliance programs) and see if their blight is less than ours,” Caruso said.

But Bob DeCosmo, president of the Connecticut Property Owners Alliance Inc. in Waterbury, said the compliance program costs too much and targets the mom-and-pop landlords who are working in good faith. Cities should instead focus on compliance programs that target absentee landlords.

DeCosmo says he has received complaints about Meriden’s program, and said New Haven lost $450,000 implementing a three-year certificate of compliance program. He also pointed to New Britain, where a certificate of occupancy and licensed landlord program were repealed. Former Mayor Timothy Stewart said most of the inspection programs are costly and labor intensive. They also duplicate Section 8 inspections for qualifying units. Blight problems can be handled through local ordinances.

As mayor, Stewart implemented a clean and lien program that placed liens on properties of landlords who ignored blight warnings. When the property owner went to sell, the lien had to be cleared up first. It was effective at not only cleaning up some problem properties but generating money for the city, Stewart said.

Wallingford inspects every five years or when a tenant moves out, and Bristol has no compliance program, but may be considering one, a building official said.

Edward Siebert, the city’s former constituent caseworker, is a local landlord with three units. He supports the compliance program because it ensures quality housing for renters.

“Our building department is a model and we’re being looked at as a model,” Siebert said. “Landlords have to be on their toes. A lot of cities have inferior conditions because they haven’t a compliance program like Meriden’s.”

But Siebert said he recognized that some landlords are better than others and should be treated as such. He would support reviewing the program for possible changes to attract more “A Players,” that could help move the city forward.

Iovanna, who sits on the City Council’s Economic Development, Housing and Zoning Committee, said he would like to see the city cut back on the number of inspections for good landlords, and bond some money to loan to investors trying to improve their properties. He said he has spoken with Caruso and City Manager Lawrence Kendzior about possible changes.

“I’m not interested in being a model for other cities,” Iovanna said. “I’m interested in attracting investors to own property and be good landlords. If we’re going to try to improve the housing, we have to get this straightened out. When development starts to happen, we have to be the place people are coming to. I don’t think we’re there yet.”

mgodin@record-journal.com (203) 317-2255 Twitter: @Cconnbiz



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