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Boone County Commission seeks creation of minimal rental standards

Sunday, December 14, 2008 | 5:36 p.m. CST
Shirley Hargis says she hopes new legislation will pass that imposes tighter local restrictions on landlords. Hargis, along with several thousand other Columbians, lives in an apartment that to most appears as non-livable, with crumbling walls and moldy floors. Hargis says her landlord refuses to fix the problems in her house but still expects her to pay the bills monthly.

COLUMBIA — The cockroaches keep coming.

Shirley Hargis, 67, has tried everything to stop them from invading her two-bedroom apartment in Quail Run, a complex off Range Line Street and Route VV. She said her landlord had her duplex sprayed once but never followed up for a second treatment. For now, she sticks to Combat roach products. She's learned that it works best.

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"If all the roaches set their minds to it," Hargis said, "they could pick up the building and move it."

Hargis has experienced a host of other problems since moving into her apartment 10 years ago and is frustrated with what she calls the poor maintenance standards in her community. As a woman with multiple sclerosis whose husband is in a nursing home after suffering from major strokes, she cannot physically repair her apartment. She is seeking other options for low-income housing.

“If they called tonight, I’d be packing,” Hargis said. “I’ve got boxes in that bedroom impatiently waiting.”

For years, the Boone County Commission has received complaint calls from tenants about public health concerns in rental housing. The commission, however, is unable to address these issues because it lacks the statutory authority to require county rental standards or perform inspections, unlike the city of Columbia.

Northern District Commissioner Skip Elkin has been on the receiving end of complaint phone calls, but he has to be upfront with callers: There's nothing he can do to require landlords to fix problems. To gain authority, the commission is now drafting legislation creating language asking the state for the ability to enforce rental standards.

Sometimes when Elkin receives a complaint call, he calls the landlord to inform them that a complaint has been made, but there is no formal process for such complaints, and Elkin cannot make the landlord address the issue.

Sometimes, Elkin said, the problem results from a miscommunication between landlord and tenant. But sometimes the landlord refuses to fix the problem because the tenant hasn't paid his or her rent.

An instance that sticks out to Elkin was a call that came from a duplex on Moberly Drive, a street in Bon-Gor Estates. The unit next-door had burned, but the fire department used water to douse the flames, and it smelled. Only plywood had been placed over the windows.

Elkin wants to make it clear, however, that the majority of landlords in Boone County keep their rental property in good condition. There are, though, isolated instances of apartments that turn into public safely issues.

"We’re talking about just a small number of landlords. The vast majority of landlords are good, responsible landlords," he said.

If given authority from the state, the commission will look at rental properties on a complaint basis. If the county receives a complaint of a serious nature — a public health concern such as a leaky roof, broken windows or a gas leak — the county commission can perform an inspection and notify the property owner.

The amount of time the owner will have to fix the problem will depend on the severity, Elkin said. If a screen is broken, the owner might have 30 days to fix it, for example, whereas a leaky pipe might have to be fixed immediately.

"We want to be reasonable and practical with it," Elkin said.

Most counties, Elkin said, do not typically have standards for rental housing because in rural areas there are not as many rental units. Because cities have higher populations and more rentals, there are standards in most larger cities. However, with Boone County's size and growing number of rental properties, it would be helpful to establish minimal standards.

"We’re at the point, size-wise, where it would be in the best interests of public health and safety and property values to establish some minimal standards for rental properties," Elkin said.

Short on cash

Hargis said she has had experiences with her apartment that have put her health in danger. Perhaps the most hazardous was when her sewer backed up for six months to a year, she estimated, making it difficult to flush the toilet.

"Every time you turned around, it was stopped up," she said.

The toilet eventually backed up into her bathroom and damaged her floor. The black stains, whether caused from the sewer or mold, remain. When workers dug up the sewer line to repair it, the pipe was crushed.

"You can still smell sewage. You aren't supposed to smell that," Hargis said.

Dan Peterka has owned the Quail Run property since March 2004. He said his problems with maintaining good living conditions stem from problems with finding a good property manager. According to Peterka, his former property manager filled the apartments with people who had not undergone background or credit checks. As a result, people who could not afford to pay rent were living in the apartments, and there was not enough money for proper maintenance.

“I’m short on cash. It’s difficult in this economy,” Peterka said.

He added that he should have more money coming soon  to address maintenance needs, but now he uses 433-Stop.com LLC for his management.

“Finding management is a problem,” Peterka said. “I finally have a good one now.”

Peterka said he cares about the welfare of his tenants, but he doesn’t support the idea of giving the county authority to require minimal rental standards.

“I personally keep my properties up,” Peterka said. “I’m one for small government. Government is too intrusive already, and I don’t think we need it. If a tenant doesn’t like where they live, they can move. For the most part, landlords take care of their property, and I take care of my property. I care about my tenants, and I always have.”

Never-ending problems

But Hargis’ laundry list continues. Another incident happened when her furnace pilot light was out. Hargis called the maintenance man, but he didn't know how to fix it. It took another week before they sent someone to repair it.

The carpet where her cat, Sugar, lies has completely flattened into a thin sheet from wear. It hasn’t been replaced in 10 years. Hargis said it was supposed to be replaced two years ago but was only cleaned.

Pictures leaning against her wall by the front door cover up water damage from a time when a leaky overhang on her front porch allowed water to seep in under the door and collect near the wall. The previous owner fixed the roof before selling the property, but the wall remains warped.

Walking past the television, briefly interrupting the game of "Wheel of Fortune" playing on the screen, Hargis banged on the shared wall of her apartment, alerting her neighbor to come over.

“That’s our signal,” she quipped.

Robert Barney, who was next door visiting but also lives in the complex, knocked on the apartment door within seconds. Barney agrees that the Quail Run apartments are in bad shape, with the landlord refusing to fix problems because other tenants don't pay rent.

“How long did it take to get your patio door fixed?” Hargis asked Barney.

“Which one?” Barney chuckled. “They don’t do a thing around here but mess up. They don’t want to fix anything. They just want to collect the rent.”

Drafts and doubts

Stan Shawver, Boone County Planning and Building director, is working on a proposal for the legislature.

“We’re reviewing what other communities do and what their standards and ordinances are,” Shawver said.

Once the legislation is drafted, they'll look for lawmakers to sponsor it.

Boone County sheriff's Detective Tom O'Sullivan, who has wanted to adopt rental standards for quite some time, agrees with Elkin that most landlords are responsible, but he thinks there should be oversight for those who aren't.  

"Most of our calls for service are to communities that are rentals immediately outside the city limit," O'Sullivan said. "Some are in deplorable standards, but not all rental property is substandard. A lot would not be allowed to operate if it were in the city."

The sheriff's office, O'Sullivan said, handles the call but lacks the authority to do anything about rental conditions.

"The city has rules, regulations and ordinances that landlords have to abide by. We don't have that in the county," he said.

The city uses the Rental Unit Conservation Law, which requires that rental units meet the general licensing ordinance, zoning ordinances and the Property Maintenance Code. If tenants have problems with their apartments, they can file complaints with the city.

“They have the right to file a written complaint with our office," Brenda Canaday, senior building inspector with the Office of Protective Inspections, said in an e-mail. "There is a $15 deposit, which is refundable at the time of the inspection, if violations are found. If no violations are found, the city retains the deposit and you are sent a receipt in the mail.

When violations are found, a letter is sent to the landlord to repair the violations. A re-inspection appointment is prescheduled at that time.”

O'Sullivan added that when he started with the sheriff's department 21 years ago, there were fewer people living in the county. With population growth comes more rental properties and also the need for rental standards.

"We're well past the time where we need some rules, regulations and ordinances," he said, "but because of our county form of government, we're unable to develop them. We're asking the legislature to pass the bill that would allow the county to regulate rental standards."

Still, Barney is skeptical that any oversight authority would do any good.

“If you bring them in to inspect, what would they do?” he questions.  

Hargis thinks that even if the county did inspect her apartment buildings, they would have to condemn them.

"They need to get out here and do what they need to do," Hargis said. "I'm not trying to be a crank tenant, but you're not living up to your expectations. Period."


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