Thursday, May 18, 2006

A couple of questions for the Virginia Association of Realtors

Mark Dorroh

In general, I approve of the work done by Political Action Committees and lobbyists. A lot of people blame those organizations for everything that's wrong with the Republic, but without them, groups sharing interests would have precious little chance to let government know exactly how a given tax regulation or proposed law would affect them, their needs, interests and livelihoods.

So the day before the city elections, I didn't make a big deal out of the $800 contributions given by the Political Action Committee of the Virginia Association of Realtors to three of our Hopewell City Council candidates. (Full disclosure: all three of them advertised extensively in The Hopewell News). I provided the information, then left it to the voters to make up their own minds.

I told you that so I could tell you this: Last week, following up on inquiries from alert readers, I asked the recipients of the PAC contributions their attitudes toward the pilot Rental Inspection Program in Ward 1. Two of the councilors-elect said they needed to give the program closer scrutiny before stating opinions. The third councilor-elect, who, as it happens, will represent Ward 1, declared the program needed some tweaking.

Asked for specifics, she cited remarks from renters who have told her they feel their privacy is violated when city inspectors come into their homes and peek into their closets. The councilor-elect also cited windows which will not open and/or will not stay open by themselves as code violations Hopewell landlords should not be fined for failure to repair. Her proposed solution was that city council might look into a "grandfathering" policy for older rental properties.

She also thought it might be good to reward with tax abatements those landlords who obey city ordinance provisions and make the repairs.

I have a question or two about those opinions.

On the proposal to grandfather in older buildings, one is naturally inclined to inquire, aren't older properties the exact ones which need the most repairs? So wouldn't grandfathering in the older buildings - allowing their owners to violate city code and pay no fines - pretty much gut the Rental Inspection Program?

Also, if these landlords are offered tax abatements as a "carrot," wouldn't the rest of the taxpayers have to make up for the missing revenues?

And finally, shouldn't apartment and rental house parents be secure in the knowledge that their windows will open when necessary? How about window sashes which stay open without having to be propped up with something your average, active six-year-old child might regard as a highly desirable plaything? We all know anything you tell kids to "leave alone" will be the first thing they'll mess with the minute you leave the room.

A window sash unexpectedly falling shut upon a little hand (or a little neck) is a scenario which would give parents, whether they own or rent their homes, a case of the Extreme Willies.

For the record, the Ward 1 councilor-elect claimed she was not beholden to any campaign contributor, and indeed, from what I've been told, the election had less to do with campaign war chests than with anti-incumbent fever and a solid, grassroots, "shoe leather campaign." The winners went door-to-door, they participated in public debates and they prevailed because their voters were motivated to get to the polls May 2.

Even so, I wanted to know if the VAR supported stated positions on rental inspections. So the afternoon of May 4, I E-mailed an interrogatory to John Broadway, VAR director of governmental affairs.

In it, I asked, "Does your association have a policy in regard to the pilot Rental Inspection Program in Ward 1 of Hopewell? [One councilor-elect] indicated in a Wednesday interview that requiring landlords to bring up to city code the properties in which their renters live may impose an unacceptably high financial burden ... She mentioned as remedies grandfathering ... older properties, as well as tax abatements for landlords who comply with inspection requirements. Are these policies of your organization?"

I advised Mr. Broadway I would like a response within 14 hours (Thursday 4 p.m. - Friday, 6 a.m.) so I could try to stitch together a Friday, May 5 story.

When a response failed to materialize, I had nothing on which to base a news feature, so I blew off the Friday story and decided to drop back and punt.

I'm notifying the VAR (as of Thursday, May 11), via an E-mail copy of this column, that Mr. Broadway or his designated hitter is welcome to take as long as necessary in crafting replies to my questions. When those answers hit my E-mail in box, I'll share them with you.

Between now and then, if rent your home in City Point and have windows that don't work so well, you should - especially if you have small children in your home - call your landlord and tell him about it.

Or maybe call the city and invite an inspector over to have a look. Once he's eyeballed it for himself, he'll be sure to get in contact with your landlord.

Also, in coming months and years, if Hopewell City Council considers expanding the Rental Inspection Program into other wards, you might want to show up make comments at the public hearing.

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