IN CITY LANDLORDS FEAR HARASSMENT, INCREASE IN FEES

Despite Landlord Grumblings, Council Unanimously Passes Rental Housing Ordinance

Updated 11 weeks ago by Tony E. Rutherford, News Editor
Despite Landlord Grumblings, Council Unanimously Passes Rental Housing Ordinance

Huntington joins Charleston and Morgantown in now having a rental registry ordinance despite heavy opposition from many landlords telling council it is too cumbersome, unconstitutional, and targets landlords in compliance with their properties as well as those who are out of state.

Erica Hernandez, assistant city attorney, explained that the ordinance is not a "fee," it merely requires the compilation of a one page form about each rental property.  The ordinance allows an annual inspection, unless complaints are received.

The registration date coincides with the renter's business license renewal. Failure to register carries a $250 fee.

Priscilla Rogers, president of the Tri-State Rental Properties Association, told  council the association members oppose the ordinance. Rogers added that fees are assessed for a return visit ($50) and $100 for a second visit. 

Mayor Steve Williams explained that social media has distributed misinformation that all residential property, not just rental property would be registered. He added that Marshall University wants to be able to show students and their parents that properties are meeting minimum code standards.

Dereck Evans stressed the ordinance "harassed" landlords that take care  of their properties. "It's a joke... a step backwards. We feel like we are under attack, " he told council as he passed out an Ohio court case where he said a similar ordinance had been held unconstitutional.

City fire marshal Matt Winters indicated concerns were premature. If no complaints are made they may not ever face an  inspection.

Council chairman Mark Bates did state that landlords "must be current on city fees" to get the rental license and business license renewal. 

Dennis Johnson, Universal Holdings, speculated that the city does not have the resources to equally enforce the ordinance , thus, potentially allowing it to be used in a discriminatory manner.

Looking at councilman Alex Vence who has previously been a partner and/or investor in Johnson's holdings, he postulated a scenario in which Vence runs for Mayor and an inspector arrives shortly thereafter to inspect the West Virginia Building.

"I'm sensitive to issues and concerns whether real or perceived," Vence explained. "The reason I support this is fire safety concerns...everyone deserves a safe place to live."

Johnson trumpeted that he had "bought and sold" over $20 million dollars in Huntington. He indicated that he would often "buy and hold" property until a good investment comes along. His latest is 26 condominiums in the former Huntington Arcade (a.k.a. Galleria).

Johnson stressed his good landlord and property maintenance, but explained an exception --- one of his companies now in bankruptcy owns the abandoned Flats on Fourth. 

"I bought it 17 years ago sold it for six million dollars then bought it back," Johnson said. 

A fire that apparently occurred in two locations resulted in the structure being closed. 

"I put up 100 people in a hotel when the fire happened and relocated all of them," he said.

With the building shut down and various Johnson coal mining related properties in bankruptcy, he said he told the trustee, "I can no longer take care of it."

However, bankruptcy court orders indicate that Johnson was removed as a debtor in possession of properties, resulting in the current circumstance where the bankruptcy trustee is responsible for care of the former Uptowner Inn. Neighbors recently cleaned up some of the exterior; squatters allegedly inhabit the structure which has no utilities. 

Prior to the unanimous passage, Johnson cautioned council, "Have you put enough thought into the execution of this ordinance?"

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