FOREST CITY | Residents of Forest City gave a resounding “no” in answer to the city council’s attempt to draft a new housing inspection code during a recent town meeting.
Housing Commission members Mayor Barney Ruiter, city administrator Barb Smith and city attorney Steve Bakke sat on the panel to hear the input and responses from the Forest City residents concerning the housing inspection code during the Monday, March 25 meeting held on the Waldorf campus.
Bakke led the discussion with information on the proposed housing code as well as its scope and purpose for the changes, starting with why the Housing Commission was formed.
“The Housing Commission was initially formed to create programs for low to moderate income properties in Forest City. One of the first programs provided various loans and grants to landlords to repair and fix up rental properties required to make it more affordable for low to moderate income families,” he said.
Bakke said the commission then looked at other communities and the codes they have in place for rental inspection programs, ultimately wanting to involve the community on the decision for the code.
“As the commission meetings are public, some landlords attended occasionally and provided their input through the process…their input was used and incorporated into the proposal before you,” he said.
The city council has yet to vote on the code, but Bakke said they may be a vote sometime in April. The March 25 meeting was solely to gather input from the public; no action was to be made on the item.
Bakke then showed those gathered at the meeting various pictures of dilapidated buildings, both interior and exterior
After Bakke went through the photos, Smith ran through the costs of the program, saying the inspections would be in a five-year cycle.
For a single family home, the inspection fee would be $40 per five-year inspection cycle. For a duplex, the cost would be $100 per five-year inspection cycle. For downtown, fourplex and Westown Place apartment buildings, the cost would $35 per building and $30 per apartment per five-year inspection cycle, so for a two-apartment downtown building, the cost would be $95.
With this system, including the $100 landlord license, the more properties a landlord has, the lower cost per rental unit per month.
“We realize there’s a lot of rental units out there that are really non-conforming right now just because of different…things, but we need to keep…going forward,” Smith said. “New construction will have to follow this also.”
When it was open to the public, 16 people spoke along much of the same vein, saying rent prices will go up in the wake of the new inspection costs, there are already remedies for tenants in Forest City Code Chapter 52, the proposed code is subject to subjectivity, there is no grandfather clause included and local ownership and rental properties will decrease.
Landlord Michael Brown, representing 25 different landlords, gave a presentation on a compilation of ideas from them
“It limits the number of potential buyers for rental properties, and it may make a 3-unit building into a 2-unit and thereby decrease its value just because you can’t meet this particular code,” he said.
Brown said with the cost associated with a potential full-time inspector position and the costs to the landlords to comply with the code, it would be cheaper for the city to outright buy the properties than to take care of and run the proposed program.
Brown also said it would circumvent the complaint process, in which the first thing the city should ask a complaining tenant is if they talked to the landlord about it, but there is nothing about that in the proposed code.
Citing the listed purpose of current Forest City Code Chapter 52, Brown said it addresses exactly what the council is trying to do with the proposed code.
Brown concluded by asking the council to kill the ordinance and not to send it back to the committee for a few changes.
“We’re interested in working with the City, but we don’t believe a lot more rules and regulations are the way to do it,” he said.
Homeowner Laura Chase said the proposed code applies to all dwellings within the city of Forest City that are intended for human habitation, including all houses along with rental properties, and that all this code will do is create more problems for homeowners and landlords.
“Last I checked, Forest City is not doing that great,” she said. “We are losing our amenities left and right. We have shops closing, we have restaurants closing. No one wants to move here. We have businesses that need workers. People aren’t taking these jobs because they can’t find housing. Why are we further complicating things for the city?”
The Housing Commission met the next afternoon, on March 26, with less than 10 landlords and homeowners of Forest City present, where they discussed the input from the town meeting.
Here, Smith said the code includes a variance for existing properties rather than a grandfather clause because a variance is more permanent and applies to a property whereas a grandfather clause only exists for the current owner.
At the end of the meeting, one of the landlords offered to bring a list of what she would have to fix according to the proposed code to give the housing committee a sense of how much would need to be changed in most rental properties to comply with the proposed code.
Ruiter said everything about the town meeting was excellent and the council plans to take it all into consideration moving forward.
"Everyone was very civil, they brought good things forward, and that's what it's supposed to be," he said.
Housing Commission meetings are open to the public and meet at 1:15 p.m. on the last Tuesday of every month.