It Just Might Work: Criminal charges for landlords

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eric headshotby Eric Ginsburg

Under state law, the city of Greensboro can charge anyone who violates a city code with a Class 3 misdemeanor. But actually the city doesn’t charge anyone who violates the city’s civil codes with criminal charges, even though it could. City Attorney Tom Carruthers says part of the reason is that a conviction would be highly unlikely.
And he would know: Carruthers used to be the manager of district courts for Guilford County District Attorney Doug Henderson.
But maybe in some cases the city’s approach should be different, particularly when a few property owners are racking up tens — and in one case, hundreds — of thousands of dollars in unpaid fines for violating housing codes.
The city should at least consider taking these flagrant violators to court.
Let me be clear: I am not saying that it would ultimately result in a conviction in district or superior court. It might not work, and it may not even be a good idea to pursue, but exploring the question is necessary.
In researching last week’s cover story, about the city’s struggle to enforce housing code violations, I found that there are several people that owe the city more money than I make in a year. And then there was Irene Agapion, whose family was already delinquent on $439,725 in fines, who said they have absolutely no intention of paying.
Carruthers said it’s his job to make sure the law is written and applied correctly, and his office is looking at the housing-code cases that exceed $10,000.
“Really what we’re talking about are civil problems, not criminal problems,” he said, adding that just because the city can bring criminal charges doesn’t mean it should. “It’s really not realistic for most city-code issues to be treated in a criminal fashion because it does not rise to the issue of criminal intent, so it doesn’t usually succeed in court.”
But I don’t want to talk about most city codes, just one. And honestly I am less concerned, for now, with a conviction rate than I am with the city’s approach.
I appreciate Carruthers’ point, but here’s the thing: The city is considering using criminal charges to enforce overcrowding rules in the fire code because a violation endangers lives. And if a venue — a nightclub, for example — violated the ordinance more than once, that would show intent, not an innocent and harmless violation, Carruthers said.
Housing code violations aren’t victimless crimes, either. By the time the city begins fining a property owner the $75-per-day noncompliance fee, it’s true that a resident is no longer inside. But the code exists to protect residents from a whole host of really dangerous situations, some of them life threatening. Strong enforcement could be a future deterrent, convincing more landlords to proactively address black mold, crumbling ceilings, dangerous electrical work, a lack of heat and other hazards.
In many ways, what the city is currently doing is working. The majority of minimum housing-code cases (691 out of 1,114) opened in 2014 were brought into compliance, and the average number of days to close a case was basically cut in half after the implementation of new policies a year ago, according to the city. That’s great news, because compliance is — and should be — the ultimate goal. But there’s a deeper problem here.
What really pisses people off about this issue is that certain people openly, routinely flout the law. And in many ways, it appears they are above it.
It isn’t just about the fine money. Landlords whose rental properties are so bad that they regularly appear before the Minimum Housing Standards Commission, who have new cases opening about as fast as older cases close, should not have their fines waived once properties are brought into compliance, as Carruthers has proposed.
Instead, the city should consider all legal mechanisms at its disposal to compel compliance or force habitual offenders to sell the properties. Public necessity demands it and the law allows it, so why wouldn’t we at least consider it?

  • Lex

    They probably don’t know how. Generally those departments (building, planning etc) aren’t trained on how to enforce ordinances so it never happens. Police are trained to enforce laws and safety related ordinances usually but do not work with planning or housing codes. I used to do code enforcement for a smaller city and this glaring “not my job I don’t know about that” issue drove me effing nuts.