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Richmond outlines proposal to inspect rental housing units

Robertson gives remakrs
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Sixth District Councilor Ellen Roberson gives remarks on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023 in Richmond.

State law restricts how the city can review properties.

Richmond City Council rebooted efforts to inspect residential rentals in February, when it voted to ask the mayor’s office to lay out a program for the examinations. Last week, the city’s top planner told a council panel that the program’s potential scope is limited by state law.

Fifth District Councilor Stephanie Lynch spearheaded the resolution requesting an inspection program be designed, saying the city has too many apartments that haven’t been maintained.

“All Richmonders, no matter where they live — if it’s affordable housing, public housing, no matter where they live — should be privy to and enjoy a quality place to live,” Lynch said in February.

University of Rochester professor Katrina Smith Korfmacher said poor housing conditions can cause a number of illnesses and other negative health outcomes, including asthma and injuries caused by falls or fires.

She’s studied the inspection program in Rochester, New York, which became one of the first in the nation when it was established in the 1970s. The program was expanded to include single-family rentals in 2000 and got updated lead requirements in 2005.

While she noted it’s difficult to tell exactly what effect rental inspections have on people’s health, she said lead poisoning can act as somewhat of an indicator — because “if you have a child who's got lead poisoning, it is likely that they were exposed to lead dust in their home.”

Fortunately, New York state’s health department looked at rates of lead poisoning statewide from the early 2000s through 2014.

“The rate of lead poisoning in Rochester came down two and a half times faster than anywhere else,” Korfmacher said. “The only difference between Rochester and Buffalo and Albany and Syracuse and Schenectady is that we had a lead law and they didn't.”

Richmond’s proposal

Chief planner Kevin Vonck told the Land Use, Housing and Transportation Committee that Virginia prevents its cities and counties from inspecting rental units localitywide. Instead, officials must identify districts where rentals are deteriorating or blighted, or add them to the program on a unit-by-unit basis.

Units added to the program could be inspected every year, though landlords would receive four-year exemptions if no violations are found.

Vonck said he’s concerned about the effect of labeling specific areas that way.

“How does that establishment of a district impact how we feel about it, how we think about it and about future investment?” he said. “How does it impact the perception of a neighborhood?”

Because of that concern, the planning department recommended the city set up an inspection program without creating any districts. Richmond would instead rely on resident complaints to evaluate potential adds to the program.

He added that districts could be set up in the future following resident outreach.

“The thought is that these geographical districts would come from the community,” Vonck said. “Perhaps we look at a way for residents, tenants to put forth a petition to ask to be put in a residential inspection district.”

Korfmacher said relying on resident complaints is ineffective. She said a proactive, comprehensive program — the kind barred under Virginia law — works best

“If you are afraid of retaliation, or don't know that you can call your landlord or don't have a lease, you're probably not going to call,” she said. “There's a big difference between a city inspector getting into every unit on a periodic basis, whether they've had problems or not, versus relying on the tenant having the knowledge, capacity, and resources to make that call.”

Sixth District City Councilor Ellen Robertson told Vonck she’s hesitant to support any program that would see the city identify neighborhoods as deteriorating. “When my neighborhood is considered a blighted neighborhood, it has a direct impact on my ability to purchase insurance at a reasonable rate. And it has a lot of other negative factors as well,” Robertson said. “Your investment of what you've already made in your property is going to be impacted, your capacity to be able to borrow money.”

She also raised concerns about the program’s potential to displace residents, a sentiment Vonck shared.

“We could have a situation where within a matter of hours, a tenant becomes unhoused. And so what are the resources we have to deal with those situations?” he said.

“If that dwelling unit is no longer fit for habitation, [the landlord is] required to provide some alternative accommodations. But we do understand in practice that sometimes … [we’re] not always being able to depend on that landlord to provide those alternative accommodations.”

Robertson said that given Richmond’s current affordability crisis and council’s difficulty in passing housing-related legislation — such as zoning reforms and shelter approvals — it’s important to “put the horse before the cart” in setting up the inspection program.

“I think it would be premature of the city if we do not weigh all of the potential risks that we are creating for probably, most likely the families at the lowest income level in the city of Richmond before we proceed to do something [when] we haven't given people a real alternative option for housing,” she said.

Korfmacher said affordability concerns are often raised when city’s consider inspecting rentals, but there doesn’t have to be a trade-off.“You can make significant improvements in housing quality without causing additional problems,” Korfmacher said. “Part of the key to doing that is implementation over time and consistently across the board.”

She pointed to Rochester’s program, which didn’t upend the rental market despite its comprehensive nature.

“We've lost some landlords who were probably in the extractive mode anyway,” she said. “But by and large, our landlord community adjusted. They did the right thing, and they made a huge difference for children's health.”

City Council must still approve the specifics of a rental inspection program before it can be rolled out in Richmond.

Connor Scribner is the assistant news editor at VPM News and also reports on the housing market and public housing.