Fri, Sept. 20

Cottonwood's proposed rental ordinance seriously flawed

If you are a tenant or a landlord in Cottonwood, here's a heads up -- the City may be coming after you.

Cottonwood's Planning and Zoning Commission is considering the possibility of mandatory inspections for every rental property, which comprise almost half of the total residences in the city.

This means, like it or not, you may have to allow a city inspector to search your rental home -- poking around every room, bathrooms, bedrooms, opening cabinets and closets, climbing up on your roof, and just about anything and everything else you can think of, looking for "problems."

It's difficult to think of anything more intrusive into people's personal lives than this Orwellian notion of sending government inspectors into private homes looking for problems. I believe that most people, including tenants and landlords alike, would probably agree this is way overboard for Cottonwood, not to mention expensive to the point of being unfeasible for the city to administer.

Cottonwood is generally considered a business-friendly community, and a significant portion of its overall revenue is generated by sales tax collected on rent. So, why would the city want to impose such an intrusive and expensive program on this important segment of its business community? One reason is to help protect vulnerable tenants from abusive landlords, and gain the statutory right to directly enforce zoning and other code provisions. Currently, the city must go to court to enforce its code.

A second reason is to counter blight. The thinking is a rental code might force slumlords out of business, which would then presumably add a larger stock of affordable housing to the market, albeit property in need of rehabilitation.

Personally, I have no problem with the city wanting to levy fines and take other action to directly enforce its codes. And I agree that everyone is entitled to decent housing, and slumlords should go. I support improving blighted neighborhoods.

But I also think it's misguided to impose such a far-reaching, expensive, and intrusive measure on your community to primarily target what probably are a very small minority of abusive landlords. Certainly, the vast majority of professional property managers and landlords in Cottonwood try to operate clean, reasonably well-maintained, and decent rentals.

So there must be better ways for the city to approach this issue. Combating blight and protecting tenants are worthy goals, but there are less expensive and fairer ways to accomplish this. What's been proposed so far is seriously flawed.

For one, a separate rental code is unnecessary, because Arizona State law already protects tenants from abusive landlords. The Arizona Landlord-Tenant Act is fair, balanced, comprehensive, and has stood the test of time. This is the primary reason why the majority of Arizona cities and towns do not have nor need a separate rental code.

In addition, the city needs to recognize rental problems stem not only from landlords ­ abusive tenants generate a significant share as well. So instead of unfairly targeting all landlords as the assumed bad guy, a better approach is for the city to be proactive and promote good rental business for tenants and landlords alike.

The city should consider something like a rental ombudsman position. This would be a staff person who can act as an objective resource to fairly protect the interests of both tenants and landlords. This city official can facilitate problem solving and, if necessary, help parties protect themselves using the provisions of the Arizona Landlord-Tenant Act. This is fairer and more balanced, and much more positive and appropriate for a small town like Cottonwood.

The city also wants to inspect properties in order to combat blight. But a rental code alone denies the city the right to inspect the majority of its residential properties, which are owner-occupied. And when it comes to blight, it's naïve to think owner-occupied residences are necessarily immune.

To counter blight, the city shouldn't deny itself access to the majority of its properties. Instead of a rental code, the city should adopt a property maintenance code that is comprehensive and fairly applies to all properties, not just rentals.

And because the cost to administer a mandatory inspection program is likely prohibitive for the city, not to mention unreasonably intrusive, the system should be complaint-driven, largely like the existing zoning codes are now. This helps ensure the city's limited resources are targeted toward those properties in the greatest need of rehabilitation.

These are just a few ideas. But clearly a rental code alone with mandatory inspections is onerous, expensive, unnecessary, and inappropriate for Cottonwood. I'm confident the Cottonwood Planning and Zoning Commission and the City Council, with public input, can work through this issue and provide some needed reasonableness and positive direction.

Steve Block is a Cottonwood business owner and property manager, and served on the Cottonwood Planning and Zoning Commissioner for eight years.

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