Fayette rental law under scrutiny

The City Council is debating a law requiring minimum property standards.
Wednesday, October 29, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:54 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

An unkempt house with a dilapidated front stoop and plastic-covered windows faces West Morrison Street in Fayette. Tonia Young rents the run-down property for $350 a month.

“How people live here, don’t ask me,” she said, pointing to a jumble of packing tape that’s holding a window together.

Young’s home is one of about 300 rental properties in Fayette — all of which could be subject to the city’s new occupancy permit ordinance if the law isn’t rescinded at the next City Council meeting on Tuesday.

The rental property ordinance requires landlords to pay for city inspections and outlines minimum standards for “public health, safety and general welfare of the people of the city of Fayette.”

In Columbia, rental property owners have been required to have their buildings inspected since the late 1970s, said Rich Sternadori, the city’s chief building inspector. The Columbia standards are similar to those under review in Fayette.

While rental inspections are a mainstay in Columbia, the issue is still being debated in Fayette.

Spencer Galloway, a Fayette alderman who supports the ordinance, said it was introduced after one egregious case: A complaint from a tenant who claimed his landlord had turned on a gas line after the gas company shut it off for spewing carbon monoxide.

While the ordinance was approved in June under Fayette’s former mayor, Mike Hirsch, no inspections have taken place. Two public hearings have been held, and disgruntled property owners continue to voice their objections.

The City Council is showing signs of rethinking the ordinance after hearing comments at a public hearing on Oct. 21 where landlords and an attorney speaking on their behalf argued that the ordinance is poorly written and unnecessary.

The six-member council is divided on the issue. Mayor J.B. Waggoner said that if there’s a split vote at Tuesday’s meeting, he will break it by voting to rescind the ordinance.

Fayette landlords have been opposed since the law was proposed.

Russell Zellner has been one of the most outspoken property owners. Zellner owns seven properties in Fayette and questions the city’s motivation for the ordinance.

“I don’t think it’s any of the city’s business,” he said. “I hope the city councilpeople have enough common sense to rescind this thing.”

Alderwoman Georgette Koelker also supports rescinding the ordinance despite the many “little horror stories” she’s heard about negligent landlords.

Koelker owns a bed-and-breakfast in Fayette that would be subject to the rental ordinance. She agrees with the basic concept but said the law is overwhelming.

The city has minimum maintenance standards in place that follow guidelines outlined in the 2000 International Property Maintenance Code. Koelker said those should be enough for both rental and owner-occupied property.

Galloway disagrees, and is not swayed by concerns that landlords will be forced to abandon their properties if the ordinance goes into effect. “We are a college town,” he said. “We need rental property. If they can’t hack it, someone else will.”

Galloway also said the ordinance Fayette passed in June has been successful in other towns.

“I don’t think we need to change (the ordinance). It has worked in Moberly, according to what we hear,” he said.

Fayette’s ordinance is similar to one in Moberly that was ruled constitutional after a court challenge by local property owners.

Zellner said the standards outlined in the Fayette ordinance are unrealistic and that none of his properties would pass inspection.

“My properties are in good, livable condition,” he said. “I’d live in any of them.”

Another landlord, R.C. Holst, who’s been in business in Fayette for 35 years, agrees with Zellner.

“You people sit around and think up this crap,” he told the council at the Oct. 21 hearing. He added that if tenants are unhappy with a property, then they should not rent it.

Young’s mother, Karen Poland, who leases a house on West Davis Street, agrees.

“If the house is a dump, why rent it?” she said.

Poland said her landlord, Zeda Wierhardt, may not have the money or the ability to keep her properties up to the ordinance standards and could be forced to sell.

“If she sells her properties, we’d have to move,” Poland said.

Unlike her mother, Young supports the ordinance and cites the poor condition of her house as proof that something needs to be done. She worries that the foundation of her home is not sound and that her family won’t stay warm in the winter due to inadequate heating. Both concerns would be addressed under the ordinance.

Of her landlord, she said, “They’ve basically just rented and rented and never fixed up.”

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