Deadly Fire Prompts City of Worcester to Propose Rental Property Registry and Inspection Ordinance

By Kimberly Rau, MassLandlords Inc.

The city of Worcester has proposed two ordinances that would affect rental property owners: a mandatory rental registry, and a requirement that all rental units be inspected once every five years.

This image is a partial screenshot of the meeting minutes from the Worcester City Council meeting on June 7, 2022. The snippet reads: 9.15, Department of Inspectional Services, Administration, Christopher P. Spencer, Commissioner. A. Recommend adoption of two ordinances regarding joint programs of the Fire Department and Department of Inspectional Services with regard to a Rental Registry Program. In green, the meeting minutes added after the meeting read: Mayor Petty read the item and moved to take the item up with item #20f CC. Mayor Petty recognized Councilor Russell, who spoke concerning the item. Mayor Petty moved to refer the items to Economic Development Committee. Referred to Economic Development Committee.

A snippet of the June 7, 2022, Worcester City Council meeting agenda, where the Rental Registry Program was referred to the city’s Economic Development Committee. The matter was first discussed at the City Council meeting on May 24, 2022.

These proposed ordinances would be a massive undertaking for the city. Implementation would include establishing a registry and enforcing it, hiring more building inspectors and completing inspections for an estimated 50,000 citywide rental units.

The proposed ordinances that would change how rentals are tracked and how inspections are handled first appeared before the city council at the end of May, shortly after a deadly fire claimed multiple lives in the city. They had support from the city manager, along with various municipal departments, including Worcester’s fire chief. At the first city council meeting in June, the matter was referred to the city’s economic development committee, which was slated to discuss the issue on July 19 (after deadline for this piece).

A Rundown of the Two Ordinances

The first ordinance requires all rental property landlords or managers to register their properties – residential and commercial – with the city. Collected data will include the number of units in a building (and how many are residential) and number of bedrooms. “During a fire emergency, ready access to this data can save time and ultimately save lives,” read a memo released by Christopher Spencer, Worcester’s commissioner of inspectional services.

Landlords would have to register their rental units, and then renew that registration annually, as well as if the building changes ownership. Landlords or property managers would need to provide the city with contact information for both day-to-day communications and emergency use. If the rental is owned by a large corporation, a contact person must be appointed who has authority to make decisions in an emergency. Landlords or managers must live within 60 miles of the rental unit in question, or appoint a proxy to act on their behalf in an emergency situation.

The residential rental inspection program would verify whether housing units meet minimum standards under the state sanitary code. Landlords would be responsible for scheduling their inspections (which must occur once every five years), which the city estimates would take half an hour. These would ideally be scheduled at the same time as the 110 inspections required under the state sanitary code, which do not require access to individual units. Between the two, a “whole building” inspection could be completed, including examining the exterior and fire escapes, utility spaces, common spaces and individual living spaces.

“While there are those that may feel this is an invasion of privacy, it has clearly been developed to ensure that any dwelling units rented are safe and meet the minimum housing standards,” Spencer wrote.

“Complaint-based” inspections – that is, inspections that come from someone reporting violations in the building – would remain in place as well.

Ordinances Funded by Low Annual Fees; High Fines for Non-compliance

The cost for landlords to register their units is low: $15 to initially register each unit ($25 per rental lot), then $5 per unit per year thereafter ($15 per year for rental lots). The cost for an inspection once every five years is $50. Owner-occupied units do not need to be registered, but other units in the building must be.

Failure to comply with either the registration ordinance or some aspect of the inspection ordinance, however, is a different story. The city is proposing hefty fines: $300 per day, with each day of the violation considered a separate offense.

The city will not charge for the first re-inspection of a unit, and will not charge for the first missed inspection. Landlords will be charged $100 per unit for subsequent missed or failed inspections.

City administrators hope that these fees will only pay for the programs, including administration and hiring five new inspectors, and are not being considered sources of excess revenue for the city. The city also plans to launch an informational program to educate landlords on what is required if the ordinances are enacted.

Deadly Fire Spurs Calls to Action in Worcester

What triggered this flurry of activity in the city? In this instance, tragedy. On May 14, 2022, a four-alarm fire in a multifamily rental on Gage Street in Worcester killed four people and injured others. The six-unit apartment building has a long history of code violations, including issues that were present at the time of the fire, as well as at least one previous fire. Public records show that code enforcement officers visited the property at least a dozen times between 2013 and 2021, and the place still went up in flames, killing multiple people.

The owners, Huanchen Li and Wendy Wang, did not comment on the fire or history of code violations, except to blame dissatisfied tenants who would call the building inspector when they were short on rent. (One of their other Worcester rental properties was condemned shortly after the fire.) The city did not comment directly on the violations or inspection history, but did note that Worcester did not have a law requiring periodic inspections at the time. And there was no statute that automatically triggered any kind of sanction or legal action as long as landlords corrected reported violations.

A lot of things had to go wrong for people to die on Gage Street. After years of repeated code violations and tenant complaints, including blocked egresses, vermin, water damage and leaking sewer lines, why were Li and Wang never brought up on legal charges or compelled to sell their property?

Could Mandatory Inspections Spell Trouble for Protected Classes?

We cannot state strongly enough that we are in support of safe housing for all. However, after reading the documents supplied by Worcester, there are areas of concern.

The first is the mutually acknowledged fact that some people may not report code violations out of fear that their housing will be condemned. The city has said that illegal units and units out of compliance will be given the chance to come into compliance under the new registry. However, if a unit cannot be brought up to standards, it may be condemned as a rental.

If that happens, people will lose their homes. Naturally, they shouldn’t be living in conditions that are unsuitable for habitation, but does the city have the infrastructure to support an unknown number of families and likely pets that will find themselves without shelter when this happens? Will there be a safety net for them?

The second cause of concern is the city’s assertion that it is important to know whether a three-bedroom unit is being rented by one family or if it is “being rented all individually, with separate locks on each bedroom[.]” We’re unsure why this matters. Surely if a fire department knows that they are entering a three-bedroom dwelling, they would check the bedrooms regardless of whether each person is renting their own room. This seems like it could unfairly impact student housing, or situations where low-income individuals are renting jointly and severally. If these door locks are cited for violations, what happens to the people who cannot afford to rent an entire apartment on their own? This would not be the first time Worcester has tried to enforce restrictions that are not found in the law: at one point the Supreme Judicial Court had to rule against Worcester, which was claiming that four unrelated people living together constituted a lodging house.

On the other side of it, the estimated half hour that the city believes an inspection will take is enough to notice the biggest issues (missing smoke detectors, missing electrical wall plates, leaky tubs), but hardly enough time to notice smaller issues that may become much larger over the five years between inspections. We must also question how realistic the estimated productivity is. Ten inspectors visiting 50,000 properties over five years is 1,000 properties per year, per inspector, totaling 500 hours if each one only takes 30 minutes. That’s doable on paper, but doesn’t include travel time, report generation or re-inspections. It doesn’t include situations in which the inspector shows up but the landlord doesn’t, nor cancelations. It’s not that it can’t work, it’s that the inspectors are going to have to work with an ever-shrinking margin of error with every setback they encounter. And that assumes perfect compliance with the program.

Finally, the 60-mile radius that landlords must live within before having to appoint a proxy to handle emergencies sounds small, but really depends on which direction you’re looking. An emergency at 3 p.m. on a Friday with a landlord who lives in Boston turns into hours of travel time before they can be on-site to address the problem.

Conclusion

There’s clearly lots of support for these ordinances in Worcester. And there’s reason for city officials to be optimistic. The reports and letters submitted by the city manager reference data from two cities in North Carolina. In Greensboro, complaints dropped by 61% after proactive inspections were instituted. Fire incidents reportedly dropped by 50% in Asheville. But what about closer to home?

Boston implemented a rental registry system in 2013, but the city is still working out kinks nearly 10 years later. In 2015, thousands of the city’s rentals were reportedly still unregistered. This is despite the city moving back the original deadline to give landlords more time to register their rental properties. In 2016, the city had to revamp its approach to inspections, as some occupants were denying entrance to inspectors. And as of 2021, Boston was considering raising certain municipal fines tenfold to try to  combat “chronic offenders,” large landlords who budget for fines and simply pay them rather than fixing their violations.

On the other hand, small-time landlords who miss an inspection and forget to reschedule could end up with enough fines to equal a down payment on a house.

This doesn’t mean registries and mandatory inspections are bad ideas. Anything that helps tenants feel safe in their homes is beneficial. However, concern must be given to issues that could quickly cause disparate impact to the very populations the city is trying to help. Repeated inspections on Gage Street didn’t end up saving the lives of four people, and they didn’t seem to have much effect on the landlords, who had another property condemned after the fatal fire. Fines may deter some landlords from keeping poor properties, but repeat code violators should be compelled to sell their properties, not given multiple chances to risk their tenants’ lives.

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