As reported by the Sentinel & Enterprise, both candidates for mayor in Fitchburg favor mandatory landlord registration, and one favors inspections.
Candidate Andrew Couture wants to charge landlords fees to pay for regular inspections. Candidate Stephen DiNatale wants a simple list of contact information.
The problem is alleged “absentee owners” who fail to maintain buildings in compliance with existing fire and health codes.
It goes without saying that all properties should be safe places to live. All landlords must comply with myriad housing regulations, including fire code, building code, state sanitary code, and others. If they rent to subsidized tenants, they must also pass inspections according to program requirements. Section 8 requires an annual inspection, for instance.
We’ve written elsewhere, most recently in the context of Springfield, that inspections are bad public policy. There are three reasons.
First, it is already possible to get a problem property inspected. A tenant just has to call the local board of health or department of inspectional services. It would be far cheaper to increase funding to these existing departments. We could even assemble a local marketing and awareness campaign aimed at tenants. We should fix what we already have instead of adding on a whole new layer of bureaucracy.
Second, NWCLA President Brian Lucier pointed out to us over email that commercial buildings are already being inspected on a regular basis according to International Building Codes Section 110, which is being used by the Fitchburg building department. Here again we see an existing process that could be doing the job if we worked on it.
Third, mandatory, across-the-board inspections are both wasteful and expensive. Let’s look first at the expense.
The State Sanitary Code is 28 pages long and has 270 bullet points Some of these bullet points must be checked half a dozen times per room. That’s potentially 1,000 checkboxes to check per apartment. Most tenant screening companies charge around $100 to inspect a landlord’s office for Fair Credit Reporting Act compliance, and this inspection has only four points. The true costs of Sanitary Code inspections are therefore going to be enormous. Unless you water down the inspections so much as to be meaningless, the costs are going to land on the tenants in the form of increased rents and/or on the taxpayers.
We also know that inspections are wasteful. They aim to address the 10% of apartments that have issues by repeatedly inspecting 100% of apartments. It’s like manually checking your tire pressure each time you get in the car when you already have a dashboard pressure sensor. Yes, this will reduce the time some tenants spend in deteriorating conditions, but any one of them could call the city today to get an issue corrected. Why start a program that’s going to be 90% waste?
Overall, we hope NWCLA are successful in making these points with their new mayor, whoever that may turn out to be.