BY ABBEY CRANK
FOR THE OPELIKA OBSERVER
There will be city council vote taking place on Tuesday, Aug. 3, at 7 p.m. dealing with rental ordinances.
On July 20, the council presented a residential rental ordinance, and citizens responded with a mix of emotions. Kurt Hayley, a real estate broker in Opelika, spoke during the meeting.
Hayley questioned how the city would be prepared to handle the volume of inspections that this ordinance would require as well as the timing considering how small businesses have already been affected by COVID.
“Small businesses have been affected by COVID-19 more than ever; the eviction moratorium still stands. I have owners that are allowing tenants to live in their houses who have not paid rent for a year, and they are communicating that they have no rights.”
Early this week, Hayley explained to the Observer that some residents feel they are out of the loop on important information. Since July 20, Hayley has gathered more than 100 signatures from citizens against the proposed ordinance.
“I think the citizens in Opelika want to be informed on what’s going on,” he said. “There’s a huge amount of mistrust between not only our city council—but the government and its citizens,”
“There’s a lack of communication on an ordinance that’s important.”
Hayley also explained there is an ordinance less invasive that is enacted today.
“The ordinance is that you’re allowed to put a city inspector in a car, drive around and post on what are at-risk homes,” Hayley said. “There is not distinguishing between an owner and a tenant.”
Instead, inspectors can check the outside portions of houses and make sure everything is in order. If not, they can still tell residents what needs to be fixed; no registration required.
Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller explained that the citizens have nothing to worry about.
“First of all, it [the ordinance] will provide us with an inventory of residential rental properties in the city,” Fuller said. “Owners of residential rental property will have to register each rental property on an annual basis.”
This decree will not affect any public or Section 8 housing; it will only operate on any rental home, apartment, trailer or residential property. If passed, the ordinance will begin operating in January 2022. Registration will open for rental properties beginning in October 2021.
Fuller hopes to make the yearly $5 registration fee easily available online. Along with the fee, rental properties will be periodically checked to make sure housing is up to standard.
“We’re not coming up with any new rules [for the inspections],” he said. “We’ve developed a checklist that has the same things right out of the property maintenance code.”
Some items on the checklist include:
1. Proper heating (nothing mentioned about air conditioning)
2. Hot water
3. Safe electrical conditions
4. Fire escapes (such as a window) in places like a bedroom
5. Safe floors and walls (no signs of substantial deterioration or leaks)
“If we have to inspect the place, the most it can be inspected is once every three years … It’s a $50 fee for our inspector to come and make sure everything is good,” Fuller said. “If … [the property meets the standards], no problem. If not, he [the inspector] gives the landlord a list of things that need to be changed or fixed. Then, our inspector will come back and make sure that those items have been done in accordance with the code.”
The ordinance, as it is written in Section 12-51 states that properties will be required to be inspected whenever a property becomes vacant.
The ordinance reads: “Thereafter, whenever a residential rental dwelling unit becomes vacant, the property shall be inspected for compliance and a new rental occupancy certificate shall be issued. No residential rental dwelling unit shall be occupied if it does not have a valid rental occupancy certificate.”
Also, Section 12-53 allows for additional inspections anytime a complaint is made concerning the property.
Landlords will not be able to lawfully rent out properties until they pass inspection.
“Proactive inspections will protect the occupants of residential rental units and the general public,” Fuller said. “Proactive registration and inspection programs may help to reduce tenant fear of landlord retaliation …”
Residents expressed concern of rental prices rising with new fees and regulations, but the mayor urges people not to stress.
“A unit for $5 a year over three years is $15, then add a $50 fee [for an inspection every three years]. That would be $65,” Fuller said. “You divide that over three years, and it’s less than $22 a year, $2 a month and 50 cents a week. I don’t anticipate anyone having to raise their rent because of the possibility of a $2 a month or $5 a year registration fee.”
Fuller explained the new regulation is supposed to help give Opelika residents better living environments.
“I’ve been poor, and I’ve lived in places that I wish had been better … I think it’d be beneficial,” Fuller said. “I don’t care if somebody pays $100 rent. The floor shouldn’t be falling in.”
Although Fuller is all for the change, some citizens are filled with uncertainty.
Along with Hayley, Citizens for Opelika’s Communication Coordinator Thomas Casson spoke to residents concerned that this ordinance will cause unwanted government control, homeless spikes and steadily increasing rent.
“They have just taken the next step where they want owners to register their property, and it is just more government than what is needed,” Casson said. “They need to work with the current ordinances that are on the books, and they need to get the proper number of inspectors in the city to take care of the problems.”
Casson and many others are worried about the economic wellbeing of Opelika residents if the law passes.
“As far as the tenant side … it could certainly increase rents,” he said. “If the city comes in and doesn’t think the property is fit for someone to live in and the owner makes improvements, the rent will go up.”
Hayley and Casson think the rental decision is bad timing for everyone.
“We’ve just gotten through COVID where there was an eviction moratorium,” Casson said. “So you know, the potential is that there’s going to be more homelessness in the city.”
Hayley would like to the Opelika community to be at the ordinance’s final vote.
“We shouldn’t think that one person or group can speak for an entire community,” Hayley said. “When the vote occurs, which is Aug. 3 at 7 p.m., we need the community, whether they are for or against it.”