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Thursday, August 18,2011

Landlord crackdown

City of Boulder turns up heat on unlicensed rental owners

By Jefferson Dodge
photo by Jefferson Dodge

The City of Boulder has ramped up its enforcement of the city’s rental licensing code, targeting property owners who are illegally leasing units to renters.

While the effort has a long way to go, it is a timely development as University of Colorado students pour back into town, entering new rental leases.

As part of the SmartRegs program, this summer the city created a half-time position dedicated to investigating landlords who are renting out their property without a license.

While SmartRegs has been best known for imposing energy-efficiency requirements, Kirk Moors, the city’s acting chief building official, says city council also wanted to make sure those new regulations were applied broadly — not just to ensure that all landlords are treated fairly and equally, but to maximize the program’s effect on greenhouse gas reduction by enlarging the number of participants. Hence, the launch of a pilot program to identify unlicensed landlords and bring them into the fold.

Terry Steinborn, who has worked for the city for more than 30 years, most recently as an environmental enforcement officer, took on the new “rental licensing compliance specialist” role on June 1.

“We’ve never had somebody that’s just dedicated to rental license enforcement,” Moors says, “and as other enforcement priorities come up, we just haven’t had a consistent program that worked that issue.”

According to Moors, the program initially involved reaching out to suspected violators with an educational effort. The city sent letters to landlords in question, informing them of the city’s rental licensing requirements. If they didn’t respond within 30 days, they received a more strongly worded letter. While city officials say there was a high response rate (70 percent) associated with the letters, those who don’t respond and who are found to be illegally renting out their property can face a $250 fine, or “investigation fee.”

Earlier this year, city officials identified about 520 cases that need investigation, either through complaints received or staff research, and Moors says approximately 20 percent of those cases have been resolved.

The rental licensing crackdown, and the rest of the SmartRegs program, will be a topic at the Boulder City Council’s Aug. 23 study session.

According to study session materials distributed Aug. 16, of the 100 cases that have been closed, 25 people voluntarily obtained licenses without requiring a visit from Steinborn. But 15 property owners were slapped with violations and the $250 fine (in addition to being required to obtain a license). The rest were cleared, primarily because they were found to be owner-occupied (27 cases).

According to Moors, others were determined to be exempt from the licensing requirements because the property was occupied by a relative, for instance, or had been physically modified to be a single-family home.

Another 20 percent, or 95 of the 520 cases, are still under investigation, leaving 331 cases in the backlog.

In addition to the $250 fine, officers have the discretion to issue administrative fees and civil penalties in the amount of $150 for the first violation, $300 for the second and $1,000 for the third. In extreme cases, an officer can issue a vacate order, revoke the rental license or issue a criminal summons, which carries a fine of $500 to $2,000 and/or up to 90 days in jail.

But the crackdown wasn’t driven by a desire to raise revenue for the city, Moors says. The rental licensing program only covers 60 percent of its costs through its fines and fees.

“It’s never been a money-making proposition for the city,” he explains.

To keep up with rising costs and maintain its 60 percent cost recovery requirement, the cost of a rental license was raised from $15 to $46 in 2003, and then up to $70 last January.

Steinborn’s salary is $37,138, according to Moors, and her half-time status will be re-evaluated after one year to see if the workload expands enough to justify making it a full-time position. Once Steinborn works through the extensive backlog of cases, he says, she will be able to reduce the response time to complaints. Her salary is expected to be covered by revenues raised from the $250 fines, according to Moors.

“The fees assessed are on target for supporting the costs of the position,” the study session materials state. “However, there is a concern that as the easier ‘low hanging fruit’ types of cases are resolved, it may be difficult to assess enough fees to completely fund the position as time progresses.”

The rental licensing program, which was launched in 1973 on the heels of the city’s 1968 housing code, is one of a kind in the county. According to officials at other local municipal governments, some cities, like Longmont, have some mediation services available for landlord-tenant relations, but none have the same code or enforcement as Boulder does.

“You can rent an outhouse if you want to,” says Claire Hunter, a consumer specialist in the Boulder district attorney’s office, which handles violations of state law that arise out of landlord/tenant disputes or health and safety issues.

State legislators passed a bill in 2008, HB 1356, targeting landlord/tenant relations.

Hunter says that while her office does field many calls complaining about landlord/tenant relations, the DA does not offer landlord/tenant mediation. She says one common inquiry involves how much notice a landlord has to give a tenant before entering a rental unit, which is not specifically defined in state law and can vary from lease to lease.

Boulder has separate checklists for baseline inspections, when the rental license is first issued, and for renewal inspections, which occur every four years. During the four-year inspections, officers check for basic life safety, mechanical and electrical requirements.

Prospective tenants can use a city website (http://1.usa.gov/propertylookup) to look up an address to see if it’s properly licensed as a rental property.

The city also has a landlord/tenant handbook online at http://1.usa.gov/LTHandbook.

Respond:letters@boulderweekly.com

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