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Council still dwelling on rental housing code

NORTH LIBERTY– A proposed code to regulate the condition of North Liberty’s rental housing and the behavior of rental tenants was put on hold last week.
The North Liberty City Council tabled the final vote on a new rental housing code after hearing comments from landlords who own rental units in the city’s two mobile home parks, Golf View and Holiday Lodge.
Jason Dumont, partner in Golf View Investors, LLC, and Dr. Rodney Alberhasky, owner of Holiday Lodge mobile home park, said they noticed changes had been made to the draft ordinance, and wanted a chance to talk about those related to the section on manufactured homes.
First, Dumont noted, there is a distinction between manufactured homes and mobile homes– the former being permanently set on a foundation, without attached wheels– and the city’s existing code and this proposed ordinance contain conflicting definitions of the two types of housing.
Second, Dumont argued, the new law creates a hardship for landlords who rent mobile homes that become unoccupied for 90 days or more.
The proposed ordinance exempts mobile homes built prior to Feb. 1, 1973, from a required Certificate of Structure Compliance as long as they are continuously occupied as rental units. However, any unit that sits vacant for three months or more cannot be re-rented unless it passes an inspection based on current building standards.
That presents a problem, since mobile homes older than 1973 were not built under any sort of regulations, and bringing them up to current standards– particularly for electricity, plumbing and building materials– would be nearly impossible.
“After 90 days it automatically becomes nonconforming and then, I assume, it has to go?” Dumont asked. “Because you don’t bring a 1972 home up to conforming standards.”
He questioned how the city arrived at the 90-day time limit.
“Why 90 days? Was that pulled out of thin air?” Dumont asked. It is not uncommon for rental units to remain vacant throughout the winter because people typically don’t move in cold weather months, he said.
Alberhasky also argued that if an owner dies or abandons a mobile home, the legal process for obtaining title to the property is lengthy, but nothing can be done until all proper steps are taken.
“There is a required abandonment procedure,” Alberhasky said. “You have to publish notice, and go through a legal process. It can take several months, if not over a year.”
Also, Dumont said, if an owner wishes to update a mobile home once it is vacated, even simple updates like painting, carpeting and replacing wall coverings can take three months or more.
“We would like to see the third reading tabled until we can get some more clarification,” Dumont said. “We don’t like the 90-day rule. Even if you want to remodel a home and put it back on the market, it can take more than 90 days easily. We are not opposed to rental inspections to make sure it’s water tight, there’s not mold, and so on, but you will never bring a pre-1973 home up to modern standards.”
North Liberty Building Official Tom Palmer responded to Dumont’s concerns, noting that the definition of manufactured housing came from the state statue. He said he and City Attorney Scott Peterson determined the timeframe when they drafted the ordinance, but did not say why they chose 90 days. He also noted that whenever homes are remodeled, owners are required to obtain building permits and be subject to current standards, except in the cases of cosmetic updates.
However, Palmer conceded he and his staff shared some of the concerns raised by Dumont and Alberhasky.
“Once we implement the program, how are we going to handle the existing nonconforming structures?” Palmer posed. “We did modify and add this language to bring some of those (older mobile homes) in and allow them to continue to be used, and not throw people out on the street.”
One option would be to sell the mobile home instead of trying to rent it, so it would become owner-occupied, Palmer said.
Council member Coleen Chipman agreed that a 90-day time limit was restrictive for landlords, and did not really further the purpose of the proposed code: to ensure safe and habitable living conditions for all.
“Why could you sell it but not rent it out?” Chipman asked. “As long as your intent is to continue to rent it, I don’t think it should just become owner-occupied.”
Peterson said the language was to create a cutoff for the oldest– and potentially least safe– homes in the trailer park.
“The goal is minimum code and safety requirements, and at some point, if it’s not being used as a rental unit, it stops the process and then there is going to be an inspection. You can make it 45 days or 180 days, but there is still the question of what to do with the oldest of the mobile homes.”
Dumont and Alberhasky asked if the ordinance could include an appeal process or other recourse for a landlord who comes up against the 90-day deadline through circumstances out of his or her control, or can show good cause as to why it remained unoccupied for that length of time.
Chipman and councilor Terry Donahue felt it was a valid suggestion, as long as minimum safety standards could be ascertained for things like the presence of smoke detectors and the absence of mold, leaks, or vermin, for example.
“Let’s just work on it and make sure it is the best document we can put out there,” Chipman said. “I would like the (landlord) to have a chance to say ‘I haven’t rented it because of this reason.’ Is it a valid reason? If so, then we are going to grant an extension. If it’s a pit and you just can’t rent it because it’s not rentable, then that’s a different circumstance.”
Donahue concurred.
“If it stays unoccupied for 90 days and the owner still wants to continue it as a rental, I think an inspection should be done at the 91st day, the deficiencies noted, a time agreed upon to remedy it, and then a re-inspection would occur and (the landlord) can be eligible for a rental permit again,” Donahue said. A minimal inspection would ultimately be in the best interest of both landlords and tenants, he added.
Alberhasky’s final plea was also on behalf of tenants.
“I just ask that you keep in mind that one of North Liberty’s nice characteristics is it has a mix of older homes– some 100 years old or more– and a lot of newer homes,” Alberhasky said. “These (mobile homes) are not apartments that turn over every year. These are homes to these folks; maybe they are not contemporary, but it may be all they have. These are their homes.”
The issues were enough to prompt council member Chris Hoffman to move to table the third and final reading until all questions could be addressed, and his motion was unanimously supported.
Peterson expected to revise the ordinance and bring it back before the council at the April 22 meeting.