Development

N.C. lawmakers to Charlotte: You can’t make all landlords register with city

Amanda Strous died in 2016 in a southwest Charlotte apartment fire that police said was intentionally set.
Amanda Strous died in 2016 in a southwest Charlotte apartment fire that police said was intentionally set.

N.C. lawmakers, in the closing hours of their session this month, passed a bill invalidating a local Charlotte regulation requiring all landlords to register with the city.

The Charlotte ordinance, which took effect in 2013, was meant to help police establish an official database to contact property owners whose tenants break the law. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police, who supported the local ordinance, said they sometimes had trouble tracking down absentee landlords.

But opponents, including the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition, said the Charlotte rule was an undue burden on landlords and didn’t offer enough tangible benefits.

“We’ve always had concerns with it,” said Joe Padilla, executive director of REBIC in Charlotte. He said the law was especially troublesome for small landlords renting just one or a handful of properties.

“To put them in a position where they’re required under penalty of a misdemeanor, we felt was really an unnecessary burden,” Padilla said. “We just never felt it should be required citywide.”

The bill passed both houses of the General Assembly with near unanimity, with only one dissenting vote in the House and Senate, and is awaiting Gov. Pat McCrory’s signature.

The state legislature has passed other laws limiting local control of various aspects of real estate in recent years, such as removing the “protest petition” that let neighbors challenge rezoning plans, and preventing cities and towns from regulating single-family home designs and aesthetics.

Here’s how Charlotte’s ordinance worked: All residential rental property owners had to provide their name, business and personal contact information and an email address via an online form. A real address was required – no P.O. boxes – and the law was meant to help police quickly identify and contact property owners who are sometimes veiled behind murky ownership or out-of-state corporations.

CMPD planned to use the information to contact owners who had excessive “disorder activity” reported on their properties and require solutions, such as improved lighting or background checks on tenants to cut down on crime. Landlords whose properties fell within the top 4 percent of police calls and crime statistics could be charged a fee ranging from $350 for single-family homes to upwards of $1,300 for large apartment complexes.

“The police were having difficulty contacting people, period,” CMPD attorney Mark Newbold said in 2012.

Now, CMPD attorney Rusty Perlungher said the department is figuring out how to amend the city’s ordinance to comply with the new law, which still allows police to require property owners whose rentals are in the top 10 percent of crime statistics to register. Any fees charged to those owners would be capped at $500.

“The goal of registration was to make owners aware of activity going on at their properties, allow property owners/management companies to monitor activity in a timely manner, and create relationships between owners/managers and the CMPD officers where the rental properties were located,” said Perlungher, in an email.

Landlords can still voluntarily register, which Perlungher said they’re encouraged to do to get access to CMPD statistics that can help them out.

“The registration of rental property provides property owners and managers with weekly crime data that assists them with the responsible management of their properties,” said Perlungher. The new law would take effect in 2017.

The CMPD program, though it was mandatory, never registered more than a fraction of rental property owners in the city. There are 29,355 rental units registered in the city’s database, Perlungher said. That’s out of a total of more than 145,000 renter-occupied housing units in the city, according to U.S. Census estimates, for a 20 percent rate of properties registered since the program started more than two years ago.

No one has been charged by CMPD for failing to comply with the ordinance, Perlungher said.

State Rep. Bill Brawley, a Matthews Republican who shepherded the bill through the House, said Charlotte’s law was “really overreach.” The new law, he said, will give cities the flexibility to target landlords who don’t keep up with their property and tenants.

“If you’ve got somebody that is not minding the store, they can go after them,” said Brawley. “There are slumlords. There are places where there is a lot of crime the police need to know about.”

He disputed CMPD’s assertion that tracking down apartment owners is sometimes difficult.

“Somebody’s paying taxes on every one of those properties,” said Brawley. “To say they can’t find the owners is just silly.”

Padilla said the law will now be more balanced for landlords.

“If there’s a problem, require them to register. If there’s not a problem...don’t add a regulation to them,” he said.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo

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