Wilmington

Time to Fix It, Just Fix Wilmington’s Landlord Problem

Have you been following the progress of the Wilmington “Blight Bill”? Mayor Purzycki has been working for at least two years to revise Wilmington’s Housing Code, mainly to give the City the ability to speed up code enforcement actions. Wilmington’s code enforcement is currently based on criminal penalties — meaning that people who violate code (especially for the big stuff) need to be hauled into court in order to get an official order for compliance or the imposition of penalties. That means that anyone cited for code violations (if they don’t remediate the problem) is taken to court (6-8 months to get on the docket) where you will be lucky to have a court-sanctioned resolution in 12 months plus or minus. Those penalties? Could be a $250/week fine (!), community service, orders for remediation or whatever a judge will order. In the meantime, the violation can continue — porches falling in, bad plumbing, vermin, lack or reliable heat or clean water or any of the big issues that undermine the quality of life for the people who live there and sometimes undermine it for the neighbors.

The original version of this bill did not make it out of committee. After promises not to target homeowners, to not take homeowners to sheriff sale and other items to try to convince people that this is targeted at vacant property owners and landlords, a new version of this bill was introduced earlier in May. There was a committee hearing Wednesday and it is passed to the floor of Council for a full vote.

This new bill isn’t perfect, either (and some tweaks were made before the committee meeting) but gets further in targeting one of the major vectors is disinvestment in Wilmington — absentee (as well as the just generally bad) landlords. Wilmington needs a more comprehensive approach to counteracting disinvestment in some of its neighborhoods and needs to better talk about what they are trying to get done. Because before all of these bills get considered there is a giant disinformation program designed to fire up people’s anxieties about losing their homes but also objectively stands with the very forces of disinvestment they keep telling people they are trying to protect them from. In this instance, the disinvestment they are protecting is that which occurs by supporting the Wilmington slumlord model.

It’s really heartbreaking, because all of this disinformation stands in the way of trying to address one of the biggest problems with Wilmington’s housing stock. It tells people that the tenants in these buildings will be even more put upon than they are now — living with buildings that landlords just don’t invest in. Importantly, it tells the people who own homes and live in these neighborhoods that it is OK for these slumlords to steal value from their homes too. So let’s take a look at some of it. These examples come from a website that has been in wide circulation among the people who think they need to keep slumlords in business — The Wilmington Neighborhoods Coalition (NOTE: the renters page where these claims come from has been removed, replaced with claims of victory) telling these falsehoods to renters in Wilmington:

CLAIM: Renters would be required to let the Housing Inspector inside the house.

FACT: This is true. And this is not a new feature of this new revision. If you look at the current Wilmington code, this is already in force and has been since at least 1994. STILL, this has been invalid for a number of years since case law has judged that entrance to an apartment would need a warrant. And I would be very surprised to find that this requirement isn’t already a feature in most standard leases here. This will change in the next revision to reflect current legal requirements.

CLAIM: Renters would not be allowed to neglect the maintenance of the unit “such that it has an injurious effect on the health, safety and welfare of the occupants themselves or of immediate neighbors”.

FACT: This is true. And this is not a new feature of this new revision. This requirement (as are multiple others required of occupants) has been in force under Wilmington code since at least 1968. And again, I’d be surprised if this is not a feature in a standard Wilmington lease.

CLAIM: Renters would be responsible for: 

  • Checking smoke detectors, making sure that they work, replacing batteries, and notifying the landlord of any smoke detector problems.
  • Keeping their units in a clean and sanitary condition.
  • Exterminating any insects, except where there is more than one unit in the building that is infested or where the owner hasn’t kept the property in an insect-proof or rat-prof condition.
  • Keeping plumbing fixtures in a clean and sanitary condition
  • Making proper use of heating facilities.

FACT: This is true. Again, not a new feature of this new revision and has existed since at least 1968.

So where’s the problem? We have people who are picking out features of CURRENT CODE and shouting to renters in Wilmington that they are going to be held accountable for a bunch of new responsibilities if this bill passes. It’s untrue. What Wilmington renters might be facing is better enforcement of current code, now with potential civil fines of $250/week. Which sounds onerous, but couple that with renewed enforcement of the responsibilities of landlords (a pretty detailed list) with civil fines, you start turning disinvestment problem around because now landlords no longer have the possibility of gaming the court system to put off needed repair and upgrades.

I could do this all day given the list of bad information that is being disseminated here. (And I’ll note that the bad information relating to renters is now removed from the website.) But this tactic of pushing a bunch of buttons to pretend that there is an effort to protect ANYONE here avoids some serious discussion about a couple of important issues here:

  • What is the goal of code enforcement in a city that bears the brunt of disinvestment AND has some healthy development activity?Wilmington is NOT the same city it was when this code was created;
  • What are the priorities of Wilmington taxpayers regarding outcomes for code enforcement and what strategies are available to achieve those outcomes?
  • What are current best practices for code enforcement? (Keep in mind that the switch from criminal to civil penalties was a Best Practice recommendation to Wilmington.)
  • Do we reinvest collected fines and fees into programs to add to low-income housing repair efforts?
  • How do we help low-income and elderly homeowners to stay in their homes and get some of the major repairs they need to hold on to some of their home’s value?

There’s probably more questions, but these are the first ones. It just doesn’t help the conversation to pull out a bunch of bullet points THAT ARE ALREADY IN THE CODE and spin up a narrative that represents them as brand new requirements that we should all want to avoid. Don’t like these ancient provisions in the code? Then let’s talk about what is better and stop misinforming people.

That said, I do think that the enforcement matrix could be improved. And L&I priorities can be more transparent and subject to adjustment over time. AND — very importantly — we just have to invest in some of our homeowners who need the help.

I don’t completely understand why it was necessary to resort to manufacturing this bad narrative about this bill. Certainly there is plenty of opportunity to fix this and that requires City Council to come to the table and roll up their sleeves rather than throw stones. Throwing stones is not governing and that is what people expect from every single one of them. This bill has plenty of room for improvement. Time to get in the room and improve it.

Or clearly explain why you are trying to maintain the disinvestment in some of our neighborhoods. There are plenty of Wilmingtonians who want to hear why you would tolerate slumlord behavior in neighborhoods not your own.

**You can see this code yourself — the revised code markup is below (although this does not include changes made in the last 24 hours). The current Wilmington code is here.

4654-An-Ordinance-Amending-Chapters-4-5-and-34-Rgarding-Rental-and-Vacant-Properties-1

10 comments on “Time to Fix It, Just Fix Wilmington’s Landlord Problem

  1. Wilmington67

    Mayor mike has been the best thing that has happened to this city in a while. Walk down market street now compared to 2015 and you see the improvement. Finally someone had the gall to challenge the status quo and make Wilmington a livable city again. Clean it up like. Clean it up. You will never win these people over. Homeless and panhandlers can do that business somewhere else, not where a millennial couple is trying to start a business. People can play loud music on their stoop somewhere else not where someone is trying to raise a family. Stay strong like there’s a reason you won. We who have lived here for years are tired of people who won’t let us improve

  2. RE Vanella

    Keep ’em out! We’re not responsible! Build a wall. Thoughts and prayers to our savior Buccini Pollin…

    … I mean Our Daddy Mike

  3. Renewal needs to be accompanied by funds from somewhere for affordable housing….private and public if necessary so that gentrification does not drive low income residents out to the burbs where there really are few options for them here in lovely, blue apartheid Delaware.

    • cassandram

      There definitely needs to be a focus on the development of more affordable housing options. And for providing help to elderly and low-income homeowners so they can keep some value in their homes and age in place in a place that is already affordable housing for them.

      But right now, the enforcement system holds homeowners (me) to a higher standard that it does to absentee landlords. Getting to a level playing field is not gentrification by any stretch. I have lived in West Center City for 16 years fighting this battle. And what I have to show for it is a really great house that is damn near worthless. The only apartheid in evidence is the expectation that the black and brown people who are invested in these neighborhoods are not supposed to want their homes to be safe and worth something.

  4. Christian Willauer

    Here is the deal. The City of Wilmington introduced new legislation: Ordinance 19-026. It proposes to change the way the housing code is enforced and creates the ability for L&I to fine property owners without getting court approval. It will be voted on June 6 by the full council. The proposed law has several sections that many members of the public, including me, were not a good idea. The top problems were that the proposed law would have included the option for L&I to 1) give renters $250 tickets for certain code violations and 2) give renters $250 tickets for not letting a code inspector into their house. In addition, the new law would have given the city the option to add code violation fines to a homeowner’s tax bill. All three of these issues were brought to the attention of City Council, and the sponsor made the changes to the proposed law so that it no longer includes tickets to renters or code violation fines on homeowner’s tax bills. You can see these changes in the revised ordinance that was approved out of committee last week. (https://www.wilmingtoncitycouncil.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/May-29-2019-FED-Committee-Agenda-Legislation-1.pdf) This is a good thing. There was no misinformation here. There was only good, reasonable, public dialogue that resulted in better legislation. I don’t think it is relevant to debate what was in the old code, because the new code is proposed to be the law going forward. The proposed new code is the issue on the table. The proposed new code is getting better because the public has been involved. There are still a lot of improvements that could be made. Instead of talking about misinformation, let’s talk about how as a city we want to handle the issues we face, and how we want to promote quality housing and strong neighborhoods. By talking about the issues, we can encourage all citizens to be involved in public debate, not discourage it, and I think we will all be better off.

    • cassandram

      Christian, this is still not right. Uncertain why you need this narrative, but if you just take a look at the link you provided, this includes the replacement ordnance AND it redline that was considered at the Wednesday hearing. That means that if the changes you are claiming victory on were made, they were made before this Agenda was published for the Wednesday meeting. Still:

      ** give renters $250 tickets for certain code violations As I read this revision, they still can.
      ** give renters $250 tickets for not letting a code inspector into their house This is gone because legal told the sponsor that there is case law that makes this fine unenforceable. The L&I Director will need to get a warrant to get into the property
      ** the new law would have given the city the option to add code violation fines to a homeowner’s tax bill It still does, especially for emergencies L&I responds to ( you have a crumbling bearing wall) and certainly for rentals and vacants.

      The public dialog may have been fantastic, but the proof you are pointing to are changes made before that public involvement. Including changes that Ciro Adams announced he was making BEFORE the meeting.

      There was no misinformation here. There was only good, reasonable, public dialogue that resulted in better legislation. I don’t think it is relevant to debate what was in the old code, because the new code is proposed to be the law going forward. The proposed new code is the issue on the table.

      The misinformation is clear to anyone who wants to take the time to look at the redlines. Legislation comes in two big ways — via a blank page or by markup to what is there. This is the latter. Meaning that the majority of the edits here have been done for specific legislative agendas: The key to following these changes is to compare the redlines. And the redline tells you the legislative history of each section.

      * Change the penalties from criminal to civil. This will make the process faster and this keeps battles you are having with the city off of your record where it could pop on a background check. We are trying to reduce the criminal burden on all of us via all kinds of reform these days and it is just not intuitive to add one more burden that can hold people back unnecessarily.

      * Change the fee structure. Licencing fees for rental units increases. Vacant property fees increase. The $250 fine is consistent with the penalty a judge could have given you if still in criminal court.

      * Focus on rental properties and vacants which is the city’s biggest problem.

      We absolutely encourage more public involvement — not less. And we start to depress public involvement when people realize that they are not being given good information from their leadership.

      There’s a more recent redline made after the meeting on Wednesday. This version eliminates more references to homeowner fins that should have been removed; deleted the number of units to be inspected yearly; deletes penalties for carbon monoxide and smoke detection devices sections.

      • Christian Willauer

        Ordinance 10-026 was introduced to Council on May 2. The original version can be downloaded here: https://www.wilmingtoncitycouncil.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/REVISED-May-2-2019-Council-Meeting-Agenda-Legislation-Youth-Government-Day.pdf

        On May 29th, the Finance and Economic Development Committee considered a revised version of 19-026 and voted it out of committee to go to the full Council for a vote. The revised version that was voted out of committee can be downloaded here: https://www.wilmingtoncitycouncil.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/May-29-2019-FED-Committee-Agenda-Legislation-1.pdf

        In both documents, Exhibit A is the proposed new code. Exhibit B is a red-lined version of the existing code, Chapter 34, which is available on-line: https://library.municode.com/de/wilmington/codes/code_of_ordinances?nodeId=PTIIWICO_CH34HOCO

        There were two primary changes between the original 19-026 that was introduced on May 2 and the revised 19-026 that was voted out of Committee on May 29.

        1) The original Ordinance 19-026 would have enabled the City to add unpaid code violation fines to homeowners’ tax bills:

        Original Version (May 2):
        Sec. 34-37. – Violations and penalties generally.
        (d) Pursuant to title 25, chapter 29 of the Delaware Code, any fines imposed by any court for violations of this chapter shall give rise to a lien(s). The unpaid amounts of such fines maybe added to local property tax billings for the property which was the subject of said violation. “Fines” shall also include any civil judgment entered pursuant to section 4101 of title 11 of the Delaware Code.

        Revised Version (May 29)
        The revised version that was voted out of Committee on Wed. May 29 removed this provision (above).

        2) The original Ordinance 19-026 created civil penalties for “any person” violating the code, which could have included renters:

        Original Version (May 2):
        Sec. 34-37. – Violations and penalties generally.
        (e) With respect to vacant properties and rental dwelling units, any person violating any order of the commissioner of licenses and inspections based on the provisions of this chapter or any provision of any rule or regulation adopted by the department of licenses and inspections for the enforcement or implementation of this chapter, or violating any provision of this chapter, or any provision of any such rule or regulation shall be immediately subject to and liable for a civil fine of $250 for such violation and any applicable remediation costs.

        The revised version that was voted out of Committee on Wed. May 29 restricts who can get civil penalties to owners of rental units and vacant properties:

        Revised Version (May 29)
        (d) With respect to vacant properties and rental dwelling units only, any person owning a vacant property or rental dwelling unit who violates any order of the commissioner of licenses and inspections based on the provisions of this chapter or any provision of any rule or regulation adopted by the department of licenses and inspections for the enforcement or implementation of this chapter, or violating any provision of this chapter, or any provision of any such rule or regulation shall be immediately subject to and liable for a civil fine of $250 for such violation and any applicable remediation costs.

        • cassandram

          1) Sec. 34-37 Revised as of 31 May: · The deleted subsection (d) referred to unpaid criminal fines give rise to a lien which may be added to property tax bills. This language was added to the section authorizing civil fines for vacant properties and rental properties. There are still the potential of liens for homeowners for items that L&I needs to remediate. As noted.

          2) Section (e) is still in the May 29 version. It is adjusted in the 31 May version to focus on owners of rentals but a close read provides some wiggle room for occupants. YMMV

          It is tough to dig yourself out of a hole created from misinformation. Perhaps you think no one else can read these documents. But the May 29 version was created to be attached to the Agenda for that day’s meeting, so there is no procedural way that this was produced in response to a Committee meeting that was going to happen *later* that day.

  5. Gregory Sheraton

    If the city was really concerned with blight, they would do something about the hundreds of vacant properties that they own. We get a fine for grass growing through a little crack in the sidewalk while the house next door to us is completely covered with poison ivy and nothing gets done about it.

    • cassandram

      This is a great point. And I’ll add in the vacants that WHA owns. And the bank-owned foreclosures. There’s not a good standard for maintaining vacants much less much accountability.

      Do you have a photo of the house you are referencing here? I’m collecting up documents of issues being ignored that harm current homeowners. If so, send to me at ctmpolitics@gmail.com.

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