Un-Constitutional -- and ineffectual
COLUMBIA, Mo 5/19/14 (Op Ed) -- Structural and fire code violations at several Columbia apartments -- University Village and Aspen Heights among them -- suggest it's time to reform the city's nearly 40-year-old rental inspection program, aka the "Rental Unit Conservation Law (RUCL)."  

Questions about the law's Constitutionality have also arisen, after City Council members had to dial back a companion regulation -- the Occupancy Disclosure Ordinance

Enacted last year, that law had overstepped the 4th Amendment by permitting police officers and city inspectors unbridled access to tenant records, applications, credit reports, and other Constitutionally protected information.   Council members removed the provision after a widespread outcry

The Rental Unit Conservation Law (RUCL) likewise had allowed city inspectors access to rental units "at any reasonable time," no judicial warrant required.   But Constitutionality concerns prompted city officials to replace that clause with a voluntary waiver of 4th Amendment protections against warrantless search. 

Passed by the Columbia City Council in 1978 after a carbon monoxide death on a rental property, the RUCL mandates property managers apply for a so-called "certificate of compliance" every three years, with a physical inspection every six years.   Landlords must waive their Constitutional rights in order to receive the certificate; tenants have no say.   
As one property manager recently told the Heart Beat, the law "offers a false sense of security.   Just look around:  Are there any fewer slumlords here than there were forty years ago?"  
Other property managers say the RUCL is not evenly or fairly applied.  The law does not require inspections of owner-occupied or vacant properties.   It only requires inspection of 30% of units in multifamily complexes with more than 30 units -- the bulk of Columbia's new student apartments.  

It does not apply to city-owned properties like the long-derelict Blind Boone Home or before Grove Construction renovated it, the Heibel-March Store at Field Park.   And it does not apply to University of Missouri-owned rentals.

The RUCL also sets different standards for new vs. older dwellings.  Parents at the new Brookside Apartments downtown have complained about bedrooms with no windows.  Such rooms in older dwellings would qualify as "closets." 

The RUCL's biggest failing is straightforward:  it leaves tenants out.   They have no say in the consent to inspect their homes, the law's most egregious 4th Amendment violation.   And they are under no ordinance-mandated obligations to maintain their premises, refrain from doing damage, or participate in necessary safety precautions such as replacing smoke alarm batteries or repairing damage they cause.     

Worst of all, City Hall directs what few education efforts it offers exclusively toward property managers, leaving tenants out of the most important part of property maintenance:  how to do it timely and properly. 

Telling a renter to replace smoke detector batteries after that annoying chirp has more weight coming from an inspector, for instance, especially if the landlord has already made that point multiple times.   More often than not, however, tenants simply remove the batteries to stop the dying battery reminder.    
Education could even benefit city inspectors, most of whom know little or nothing about property management, a profession dealing with people at the heart of their lives -- in their homes.    It behooves those regulating businesses to understand them.   Property management involves much more than buildings. 

-- Mike Martin

Mike Martin has been a property management professional for 24 years.  He specializes in rehabbing and renovating inner city properties that present some of the most unique and difficult challenges in the landlord business.