Divided city council clashes over rental ordinance

Published 11:19 am Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Tensions boiled over when members of the Austin City Council clashed Monday night over a proposed rental registration ordinance.

The council voted 4-3 with Mayor Tom Stiehm acting as tiebreaker for absent Council Member Steve King, but the ordinance hasn’t passed yet as the council needed a unanimous vote to push the policy through on the first public reading.

Enright

Enright

Though the council’s 4-3 vote was expected — council members voted along those same lines at a Dec. 1 work session — Council Member Judy Enright criticized dissenting council members Jeff Austin, Jeremy Carolan and Michael Jordal before the vote took place, expressing her dismay at their opposition to the ordinance after months of work and years of discussion.

“It’s actually embarrassing to be on a council that is untrustworthy and self-serving,” she said. “… This is a simple step to making progress.”

Enright took Carolan to task for voting on the ordinance despite the fact he is a landlord and realtor. She also pointed out he abstains from votes on fire department issues as he is a part-time firefighter.

“I know legally you can vote for this, but it is immoral and unethical for you to vote for this,” she said.

Carolan said after the meeting he was disappointed in Enright’s remarks and believes the ordinance’s database could be created using public information from Mower County, which is why he sees no conflict of interest in voting.

Enright also criticized Austin for voting against the ordinance he helped to craft earlier this year, though Austin has maintained his stance over the years that a registration ordinance isn’t necessary.

Austin said during the meeting that he didn’t feel comfortable crafting the ordinance earlier this year as the discussions he and Enright had with former Community Development Director Craig Hoium felt to him “like a done deal.”

“I don’t see how this ordinance will affect anything,” he said.

At issue

The council has struggled with a rental ordinance for years as residents ask the city to deal with delinquent properties. Various councils have researched a rental ordinance since 2009 and proposed a similar registration ordinance in 2011, but the council voted it down.

The council would create an ordinance to require all Austin rental property owners and managers to register with the city, which would effectively create a database for planning and zoning employees.

In addition, city departments would come together to create a mandatory educational program for owners and managers that covers owner and tenant rights before they can register. City officials say the registration process and class would be free.

Under the recommendations, city inspections would continue on a complaint-only basis.

The plan was created after Enright and Austin met with Hoium and Austin Housing and Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Jon Erichson earlier this year. The group also sought input from Peter Grover of the Austin Area Landlord Association, which supports the ordinance.

Council members approved a draft plan of the ordinance in May but decided to table the issue and wait until the city’s planning and zoning department was fully staffed. The council voted earlier this year to increase a part-time inspector position to full-time and three people have been hired to replace Hoium, who retired in August.

Policy positions

Yet the council split on the issue during its Dec. 1 meeting after some council members rehashed old issues and brought up new ones. Jordal criticized the ordinance for not being well-defined. He pointed out the city had yet to determine what the ordinance’s educational component would entail and said the ordinance could have far-reaching effects for homeowners looking to rent a property they can’t sell out to others while looking for a new house.

He, Carolan and Austin also said during Monday’s meeting the city already has ordinances to deal with bad landlords.

Council Member Janet Anderson disagreed.

“Show me where these ordinances are,” she said.

Jordal pointed out the council votes on properties with illegally stored junk and vehicles every meeting, but Anderson said the current ordinances haven’t done enough to solve the issue.

“This is a first effort,” she said.

During Monday’s meeting, Enright pointed out the city’s work over the past two years. The city’s planning and zoning department issued 380 violation citations over that time span, with 218 violations coming from rental properties. Of those, 85 violations were for substandard housing or hazardous structures.

“We have a lot of slum landlords that are on this list repeatedly,” Enright said.

Austin said the citations mean the city is finally enforcing its ordinances. Enright believes the numbers mean the city could do more through the ordinance, which would help the city develop communication lines with all rental owners and property managers.

“It’s something that we’ve worked on for a long time,” she said.

The council will address the issue before the end of the year, however. Stiehm directed city staff during the meeting to schedule a special council meeting before the new year, so the council could make a decision on the ordinance.

“This council has worked on this ordinance and this council should be the ones to decide it,” he said.