Ireton turns up the pressure on rental over-occupancy

The house at 418 West College Ave. has been the subject city rentals controversy.

The house at 418 West College Ave. has been the subject city rentals controversy.

Salisbury City Council, at its work session next week, will discuss legislation to stiffen penalties for over-occupancy violations.

A news release issued by Mayor Jim Ireton’s office stated the council will also discuss removing discretionary power from the Housing Board of Adjustments and Appeals, but Jake Day, president of the City Council, said he removed that from the agenda because it is “not ready for discussion.”

Legislation to stiffen penalties passed on first reading at a previous meeting, but at the upcoming Monday work session, at 4:30 p.m., Council members are likely to make changes.

“Some things can get clearer about what the punishment will be and what the impact will be on the tenant and property owner’s ability to rent that property and what the effect will be on your license overall as a landlord,” Day said.

“These should exist at different levels. If the tenant over-occupies, should you lose your landlord license?  No. But if you are in chronic violation, then maybe you should.

“It’s a balance of enforcement and legislation. Tougher penalties are fine but you also have to get tough about investigation. That might mean making sure we have the right resources in place, making sure our coding department has the right resources,” he said.

Day said most of the cases of over-occupancy come to attention of the city through neighbor awareness.

“Over-occupancy by itself presents a danger to the tenant from a housing and building perspective, but it’s really not my main my concern,” he said.

“It’s the behavior that is associated with some of the houses in Salisbury.  That includes the incident that happened on my street, where residents in an over-occupied house were selling drugs out of the house. Our neighborhood was very concerned about that house for a long time. They were kids. They were Salisbury University students and … that kind of behavior brings an element to the neighborhood. It brings danger to our neighborhood so we have to get aggressive and tackle those things,” Day said.

Ireton, in the news release, stated he’s reiterating his “commitment to solving the issue of over-occupancy in Salisbury neighborhoods in the wake of a Housing Board of Adjustments and Appeals ruling which allowed an over-occupancy situation to continue.”

He said he is urging City Council “to act decisively to pass the legislation, and to consider further measures aimed at fixing Salisbury’s housing codes.”

Before Day removed it from the agenda, Ireton also planned to recommend legislative changes to take discretionary power away from the housing board.

The board exists “to determine if the housing official properly interpreted the city code” and Ireton said he does not believe the board should be involved more deeply than being allowed to make that determination.

“The Housing Board of Adjustments and Appeals — a quasi-judicial panel comprised of members nominated for service by the mayor, and voted upon by the Salisbury City Council — found that the rental at 418 West College Avenue is an over-occupancy. However, acting within their discretion, the board granted an adjustment which allows owners Kevin and Kristine Adams until the end of the lease period (4½ months) to remedy the situation without penalty,” Ireton stated in the news release.

Day said the Adamses rented to three, instead of two, tenants, and were stopped.

“They can’t rent that property the way they were renting it ever again. It was over-occupied,” he said, explaining the owners misinterpreted the law.

Ireton said he understands the board’s discretionary power, but its ruling is an example of “how current law allows the system to fail Salisbury homeowners by stacking the deck in favor of rental owners who knowingly put more than the allowed number of tenants in their rentals.”

In a letter to Lynne Bratten, chairwoman of the housing board, Ireton said the board “rendered neighborhood services and code compliance powerless to enforce our occupancy laws in this case.”

The definition of “family” is clear and the law must be upheld, “not bent or skirted to serve landlords at the whim of the HBAA,” Ireton said.

“If rental property owners know that the end game in any case brought before the HBAA is a ‘get out of jail free card,’ why should they feel compelled to comply at all?” Ireton said.

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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