Hamilton Mayor Cautions State Legislature’s ‘Conventional Wisdom’ of Taking Towns Out of Rental Inspections
“Could you imagine if we had a ‘Lemon Law’ in New Jersey for faulty automotive parts of new cars purchased only from small automobile dealerships, and not from larger dealerships,” says Hamilton Township Mayor John Bencivengo when comparing the hypothetical scenario to the bill currently making its way through the State Legislature that would prevent towns from inspecting apartment complexes that have more than 3 units. “Not only do you have to question why larger apartment complexes are being selectively ‘carved out’ of local inspections, but you have to question why our local inspectors, rather than state inspectors, have been the ones to uncover violations in some of our community’s multi-unit complexes.”
KEEPING RENTING RESIDENTS SAFE REQUIRES ACTIVE ENFORCEMENT
While Mayor Bencivengo notes that not every unit in large complexes exhibit poor living conditions, he does point to issues that Hamilton inspectors have uncovered in some larger complexes since the town implemented its Landlord Registration ordinance back in 2009.
In the spring of 2010, Township inspectors uncovered hundreds of units in several multi-dwelling complexes that had illegal wiring done that breached protective firewalls. In these cases, permits were never obtained, which would normally trigger a safety inspection.
Likewise, in late 2009 and early 2010, Hamilton inspectors uncovered several violations dealing with boiler installations at one specific multi-dwelling complex.
These findings were in addition to issues such as the existence of bed bugs, low or no heat in some units and no hot water in units that have occurred in some multi-dwelling complexes.
“My greatest fear is that if the section of the Department of Community Affairs responsible for these inspections – that I am concerned may be understaffed – is unable to investigate every rental unit, who will be protecting the law-abiding, renting resident of Hamilton Township, or any other community of the State?,” asks Mayor Bencivengo. “The reason we acted in Hamilton is because we believed our renting residents deserve an active watchdog to ensure their hard-earned rent payments were going towards needed safety repairs and protective measures to preserve their quality of life, rather than watching safety being shortchanged for profit.”
KEEPING A HIGH QUALITY OF LIFE FOR ‘AMERICA’S FAVORITE HOMETOWN’
Mayor Bencivengo believes that not only has Hamilton’s ordinance enhanced the quality of life of renting residents, but that it has also preserved the community’s overall quality of life – even for local homeowners.
“Quite honestly – without singling out any particular community – there are some towns and cities that I believe have allowed less desirable living conditions to persist for renting residents because they have not chosen to be as active as we have in Hamilton,” says Mayor Bencivengo. “But the reality is this – if safety and living conditions decrease in rental complexes – do not be surprised if the negative impact on housing values extends beyond those complexes and to surrounding homes and neighborhoods. This is a domino effect that we do not want to witness in ‘America’s Favorite Hometown’.”
COMMON SENSE FLEXIBITY AND INCENTIVIZING COMPLIANCE
When Hamilton Township implemented its Landlord Registration requirement, which gave each unit one free Change of Occupancy inspection, Township officials allowed complexes to provide proof of a unit’s inspection from the State of New Jersey to satisfy Hamilton’s requirement. Additionally, township officials effectively lowered the change of occupancy inspection fee for these units by providing one free change of occupancy inspection over a 5-year period for $50 when each unit is registered (as opposed to the normal $75 cost for a change of occupancy inspection.)
“The fact remains that the landlord registration fees that Hamilton collects per multi-dwelling unit, every five years, is actually a financial incentive for good landlords. Compliant landlords, who properly register their rental units will obtain a $25 per unit savings off their next Change of Occupancy Inspection,” says Robert S. Warney, Director of Hamilton’s Community Planning and Compliance Department, who likens the fee scale to how town’s fund the enforcement of the State’s Uniform Construction Code. “The goal is to make sure the rental units are properly inspected, and actually incentivizes good landlords, not profit from them.”
REGISTRATION PREVENTS LANDLORDS FROM AVERTING SAFEGUARDS
Township officials know that many landlords desire to abide by the law and preserve quality rental units, however, that there is a need for public safety inspectors to protect residents from those who may seek to avert regulations and act unscrupulously. Since enacting its registration in 2009, Director Warney points to how Hamilton’s Landlord Registration Ordinance has highlighted instances when some landlords did not advise the Township of Changes of Occupancy.
“Our registration requirement also periodically provides us with the names of tenants, and when our inspectors see changes in names, it tells us that the occupants have changed. Without embarrassing any particular landlord, I can say that we have found instances when the landlord has not advised us of occupancy changes,” explains Warney. “So, although one sponsor of this bill has defended the initiative by touting its allowance of towns to make change of occupancy inspections – which help protect incoming families for unsafe conditions – my concern is that the overall removal of local inspectors from this process will make it very easy for changes of occupancies to go unreported. Therefore I have to ask, does the State Legislature think it’s a good idea to assume that every single landlord in New Jersey will do the right thing and let local officials know about each change in occupancy?”
REGULATIONS WITH TEETH
Township officials are also concerned that the proposed bill will weaken the penalties that Hamilton already has for non-compliant landlords. In addition to strict fines (up to the $2,000 maximum allowed under New Jersey law) for providing false information or any other infractions, registering all rental units gives Hamilton officials another, very powerful deterrent to unscrupulous landlord activities – the ability to revoke a landlord’s license.
“Although we attempt to be fair and judicious in rendering penalties, it would be very unfortunate if the powerful tool of revoking the license of an unscrupulous landlord was effectively removed from our or any other local governments’ hands – whether it is because we are prohibited from doing so or incidentally hand-cuffed through the legislation’s disruption of our local system,” laments Warney. “I sincerely hope that the General Assembly very carefully and seriously considers these and other consequences before approving this measure.”
EQUAL PROTECTION FOR ALL
“I believe every Hamiltonian, whether they own a home or rent an apartment unit, deserves to have their safety, quality of life and best interests protected under the law,” concludes Mayor Bencivengo. “Unfortunately, I believe this legislation would work to undo the well-intentioned measures that our government and other communities have taken to protect our renting residents.”