COLUMBIA — City officials know there are 22,715 rental units registered in Columbia, but they also know there are landlords who have failed to register their properties.
"We are certain there are more rentals in this city, “ said Leigh Britt, manager of the Office of Neighborhood Services. “We work to try to identify them.”
The Office of Neighborhood Services tries to register all rental property. Registration helps ensure it complies with the city’s Rental Conservation Law, Britt said.
At Tuesday’s Columbia City Council meeting, officials will hear a proposal to establish a period for landlords to register their rental property without fear of prosecution. Landlords who are unregistered ordinarily would be prosecuted for failing to comply with city ordinances.
"If they don’t feel comfortable, this is a time for them to come,” Britt said.
Called the Rental Registry Amnesty Program, the plan would allow any property owner to register his or her property with amnesty from Oct. 1 to Nov. 15.
"After that period, Nov. 15, we intend to return to investigating and prosecuting unlawful rentals," Britt said.
The Office of Neighborhood Services has several methods for finding unregistered landlords. Britt said they receive and investigate tenant complaints, research lawn signs and compare utility bills to ownership.
"We don’t have a consistent way, but we come across them every day. We have some active cases, which we aren’t going to drop,” Britt said, explaining that amnesty is only for those who volunteer to register.
At his news conference on Friday, City Manager Bill Watkins speculated that some rental property owners might be willing to risk being unregistered so they can avoid the cost of bringing their property up to code.
"It may be cheaper to pay fines than comply,” Watkins said.
After a rental unit is registered, it becomes subject to an inspection to check for safety hazards and to ensure proper zoning compliance.
"There is a fee, which is minimal,” Britt said. “You agree your property will remain to code.”
A new application costs $35 per building and $7 per inspection per unit. So, the cost for a single-family home is $42, a duplex $49 and a fourplex $63.
"That’s good for a certificate of compliance for three years,” Britt said.
After the first period, the price drops to $25 every three years, and the inspection fee is waived. Moreover, inspections are not required if there are no complaints, Britt said.
Landlords in violation of the ordinance face fines of up to $500 and up to three years in jail, according to the report Britt wrote for the council.
"We have an awful lot of property owners in compliance," Britt said. "We don’t think it’s fair that other property owners aren’t making the effort.”
Britt believes some property owners are unaware a registry exists, but she hopes the program will change that. According to the report, the Office of Neighborhood Services plans to promote the Rental Conservation Law through news releases; articles in City Source, the city's newsletter; and communication with Realtors and lenders who might have contact with landlords.
"Tenants can play a role a in this,” she said, encouraging renters to ask their landlords if they are registered. “This program is about ensuring safe housing for those who rent."