Hearth on Summit Avenue results in proposed new dwelling inspection ordinance in Greensboro

Greensboro City Council has been active since the May 12 fire in an apartment on Summit Avenue that killed five children. The result was that the apartment building was convicted and eviction lawsuits were served on the tenants.

According to the official fire report, the fire was caused by unattended eating in a pot on the stove that was left on, rather than faulty wiring or a broken stove as was rumored before the official report was released.

In response to the fire, the city council plans to amend the city’s ordinance on periodic inspection of residential units in October.

The main focus of the ordinance, according to Councilor Justin Outling, who was involved in the discussions that led to the proposed ordinance, is to allow the city to inspect all units in an apartment building if the inspector determines that an apartment is in unsafe condition that poses an imminent threat to residents.

So an inspector who detects a security risk in an apartment can check all other units in that building to see if the same security risk exists without having a specific complaint or actual knowledge of the existence of that security risk in those apartments.

Outling said this would result in an apartment building being treated like a single family home, where the inspector is not confined to one room. He said one result would be that inspectors could spend more time inspecting rather than gathering the documentation required for the inspection, and the regulation would apply to any multi-family structure, regardless of whether the units are owned or rented.

Outling, the attorney at Brooks Pierce, said it appeared to be a drafting error in another section of the ordinance that allows the city council to make a part of town no more than a square mile a derelict area and inspect all structures in this area. Outling said that even in a designated dilapidated area, the city would need to have “reasonable reason” to inspect the buildings, but the way the ordinance was drafted was confusing.

“Reasonable Reason” is defined as a history of more than four confirmed complaints in a 12 month period, a complaint or request for inspection, violations visible from outside the building, or knowledge of the inspection department of actual unsafe conditions inside the building.

Another part of the regulation, which appears at least problematic, is that the police authority supports a landlord “in evacuating a tenant who is charged with a criminal offense”.

According to the law, a person is innocent until proven guilty; Treating a tenant differently because they have been “charged with a crime” appears to be against that principle.

It also seems to be saying that landlords are responsible for preventing their tenants from committing crimes, and the police will assist landlords in that effort.

Outling said this section was intended to deal with issues like the city at the Heritage House, which the city condemned. The city is still in the process of purchasing all of the condominiums in the building.

Outling said that both the Greensboro Housing Coalition and the Triad Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition (TREBIC) participated in the discussions and all agreed on the new regulation. The most important points are the ability to inspect an entire building if a residential unit is found to have significant security issues, and regular inspections of buildings with a history of violations.

From 2009 to 2013, Greensboro had a Rental Unit Occupancy Certificate Regulation (RUCO) that required all rental units to pass an inspection and provide an occupancy certificate before signing a rental agreement. North Carolina lawmakers passed state law making differential treatment of rental property illegal for inspections, and in 2013 the city abolished RUCO.

The proposed new ordinance deviates from this state law in that the requirements for inspecting condominiums and rental apartments are the same.

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