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State requires towns to perform broader housing code inspections

No funding is being provided to carry out new mandate

BRATTLEBORO—The state recently handed down a mandate to municipalities: Do a better job inspecting rental housing. And find a way to pay for it.

The ordinance change goes into effect Oct. 20.

The Selectboard held a second hearing and voted unanimously to adopt a change to the town’s rental housing ordinance at the Aug. 21 meeting.

While the change doesn’t affect what’s legal and illegal in rental housing, it does expand the municipal health officers’ scope in responding to complaints about possible code violations.

At the Aug. 7 meeting, Town Manager Peter B. Elwell informed the Board of the new state requirements. When a resident calls a health officer about a specific issue, the officer now has to inspect every unit in the building using “all the related aspects of the rental housing code,” he said.

This will require towns to expend additional resources to inspect rental housing, ensure landlords cure violations, and issue civil tickets and follow up when they don’t.

But, as Elwell noted, it’s an unfunded mandate, so the state hasn’t allocated any money to help towns pay for this.

Elwell said he and his staff met with Health Officer Lenny Howard and Assistant Health Officer Brian Bannon to develop procedures they can follow to be in compliance with the state, “and that will keep this a manageable task,” Elwell said.

One concern Elwell has is how to make enforcement, once residents make complaints, as efficient as possible.

Replicating state codes

Elwell recommended the Selectboard adopt a change to the town’s ordinance on health, sanitation, and fire safety inspections, making the town laws exactly the same as the state’s rental housing regulations. Literally.

“The proposed ordinance takes the state’s language without repeating it, because if we repeated it, then every time the state changes it, we would have to change ours, too,” said Elwell. “Instead, the town ordinance will say, ‘See the state regulations.’ We’re enforcing those as local codes.”

Replicating the state codes in town ordinances will streamline the process a bit for the health officers.

Prior to the ordinance change, the town’s health officers wrote notices as violations of the state housing code, but it’s more complicated for the health officers to follow up when landlords fail to comply with state regulations.

By bringing the state’s housing codes into the town’s ordinances, “we’ll be able to write local tickets for the violations that don’t get cured in the appropriate amount of time,” Elwell said.

Town Attorney Robert Fisher noted that even the “small amount of money” that comes to the town from the tickets is “a fairly small amount to compensate for the added burden [to] the health inspector, but it helps.”

Howard, who also serves as the town’s assistant fire chief, told the Board this change will make his work more difficult. Usually, he said, he’s able to work out the violation with the landlord. “But now, I have to do the whole building, and there’s not enough time in the day to go out and do that,” he said.

Elwell said he believes “procedurally, we can address the burden this places on the town, and it is a burden.”

How to enforce?

Selectboard Chair Kate O’Connor asked if the health officers have enough resources to enforce the rental housing codes and perform inspections “now, and when we add to it?”

“It stretches us thin because we’re devoting resources that would be primarily devoted to Fire Department activity to instead go toward health and safety code enforcement activity,” Elwell said.

Board member Brandie Starr asked Elwell to come up with figures, as budget season approaches, on the cost of creating the position of code enforcement officer.

Elwell noted this person would “put Lenny back to work full-time with the Fire Department,” and allow the other health officers — like Bannon, who is the town’s zoning administrator — to return “to their core functions.”

Board member Shanta Lee Gander pointed out the challenge of holding absentee, often out-of-state, landlords accountable for what she sees as “semi-slumming conditions where the landlord is totally off-site and not necessarily responsive” to complaints.

O’Connor said she has heard many complaints about substandard housing conditions. “These are big issues,” she said. “They impact our neighborhoods, people’s lives, and our town.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #476 (Wednesday, September 12, 2018). This story appeared on page A1.

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