COLUMBIA — A bill that would allow third-party vendors to inspect rental properties in Columbia will be coming to the City Council soon.
The city's Office of Neighborhood Services brought a report to the council at its May 6 meeting outlining the possibilities of a third-party rental inspection program. The idea is to use the private sector instead of city staff to conduct those inspections.
"Using private, third-party inspectors to conduct rental inspections may lessen the workload on city staff, allow the private sector an opportunity to serve this need and give rental property owners greater flexibility in who they work with and to negotiate the cost of rental inspections," Neighborhood Services Manager Leigh Britt wrote in a memo to the council.
City officials first broached the idea in fiscal 2012, when staff inspectors were overwhelmed by a backlog of inspections to be conducted. Although that backlog has since been reduced to about 200, the Columbia Apartment Association asked Britt to raise the issue again.
"The Columbia Apartment Association is in favor of private enterprise whenever possible," the association president, Stanley Diaz, wrote in a Feb. 19 letter to Britt.
Britt told the council that she and her staff don't yet know what the financial impact of the change would be. The city would need to train inspectors, certify their qualifications and monitor their work.
Britt also noted that Boulder, Colo., was the only city she found that allows third-party inspections of rental properties.
Mayor Bob McDavid supported the idea and, with his council colleagues' unanimous support, asked staff to draft an ordinance that would allow the change.
Columbia Property Management broker Dan Ruether said in an interview that he worries relying on the private sector for inspections could create inconsistencies. He also wondered whether private inspections would cost more or less than the city's.
Hawthorne Management Co. broker and co-owner Cheryl LaHue said the price of inspections would be her main concern.
"Right now, the cost is very reasonable through the city," she said.
Britt said in her report that inspection costs would be determined by the property owner and the private inspector. City inspections would continue to be available to those who want them.
The city charges flat rates for rental inspections: $35 a building and $15 per unit. Re-inspections cost $25.
Britt also noted that an auditing program could help weed out inspectors who fail to ensure compliance with city codes. Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser suggested at the meeting that landlords with track records featuring numerous violations could be required to use city inspectors.
Real Estate Management President Mark Stevenson said he favors private-sector inspections because it would make scheduling much easier. He said there have been times when it took city staff up to a month to complete a requested inspection.
Third Ward Council Member Karl Skala said he sees little need for the change since city inspectors have reduced their backlog from 1,200 to 200. Private inspections, however, could be used as a relief valve if the backlog were to recur, he said.
"I mean, I'm still open to the idea," he said. "I'm not opposed to the idea necessarily."
Britt said in her report that using private inspectors to certify compliance with city rental codes would give staff more time to focus on problem properties and code violations. Right now, the city has three staff members who do rental inspections. As of May 1, the city had 24,980 rental units that need to be inspected at least every six years.
Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.