Two boarded-up Wilmington homes are demolished; partnership addresses blighted properties

A three-year battle to deal with blight will once again make its way to Wilmington City Council's chambers this week.

In a non-unanimous voice vote, where chairwoman Maria Cabrera did not ask for a roll call, the Community Development and Urban Planning Committee moved an ordinance to turn rental property code violations from a criminal violation into a civil violation to the full council's consideration at Thursday's meeting.

The two-hour discussion covered concerns from the length of time needed to get violations through the court system, where fine monies should go, and whether fines on landlords puts tenants at greater risk of eviction.

The proposed measure would split owned properties and rental properties into criminal and civil matters, respectively.

Civil penalties for landlorders would begin with a notice by an L&I inspector, with a 30-day period to make the changes. At that point, a $250 fine could be issued for each violation, which could be reissued if no work is done, or a deal worked out with the inspector that the work is in the process of being done.

Under the criminal code, there was a $250 fine for each violation of the city's housing code, which escalates to $500, $1,000, $1,500, and $5,000 for each additional conviction where the concern had not been addressed. This would not apply to civil cases.

Tony Sierzega, an attorney with the Community Legal Aid Society, told the committee that in an era of pandemic unemployment, fines could lead to unintended consequences if landlords don't get assistance.

"If they haven't been able to access assistance, and L&I discovers minor issues that the landlord doesn't have the rental income to use to make repairs on a tight timeline, that landlord may make the decision to get out of business and evict the family that is living there, leaving the family without housing."

Cabrera said she feels the fines, which go into the city's general fund, are more of a way to push things to get done.

"This isn't about money; this isn't about the fines. The city could care less about them paying fines. What we want to see is the code violation fixed. That's what has to happen. The fines are a way of holding people accountable and giving them a sense of urgency so that they get it done."

What hasn't been urgent, Cabrera said, in many cases are the violations working their way through the criminal system. Cabrera said this can cut down on that.

"Once the inspector goes out and does the code violation, we can't force the landlord to fix it, and they can go to court. It's an extended process. So what this does, changing it from criminal to civil, it shortens the time that we can hold the landlord accountable."

It's also a concern L&I Commissioner Jeff Starkey said he hears from his inspectors.

"Inspectors often come to me frustrated with the court system. One, for the length of time it takes to get a resolution, and two, because they're getting labeled by tenants as 'doing nothing' when, quite frankly, their hands are tied. Inspectors' main goal is to work with constituents rather than issue criminal summons and/or fines." 

To that end, Starkey said L&I is willing to work with landlords who need additional time, especially in complicated cases where 30 days may not be enough time to hire a contractor and complete the work.

David Sophrin, policy analyst for the mayor, said "good landlords" don't need to worry.

"If somebody fixes this issue of the housing code violation at their property, there is no fine applied. This whole debate about whether it is a criminal process that results in a fine or a civil process that results in a fine, is academic, they won't be facing a fine. It's only when there is no action happening."

Jeff Sheraton, President of Greater Wilmington Housing Providers said his group wants to support the bill, but they have reservations. 

"The proposed ordinance unifies the cost of all violations. So no matter that the violation is, it is the same cost, which to me seems, odd. As a landlord, we have minor violations like leaky doors or torn screens, and we have large violations like missing heat or lack of water."

The previous criminal system also did not categorize the type of violation.

Sheraton said the group would also like to see owned properties treated the same as rental ones along with a better due process system put in place, if the timetable will be quickened.

"I would like to see hearings take place before fines are issued, and have some sort of reasonable appeal process that perhaps involves the L&I review board, so where if a landlord gets a fine they don't agree with, they can appeal it."

Cabrera responded that the administration plans to work to improve the system before July 1.

"The L&I review board is going to be revamped, so that way they can hear the appeals that the landlords will have in terms of the violation or the fine, and they will be given due process in front of the board."

Cabrera said Wilmington believes there are as many as 7,000 unregistered rental properties in the city, and if the blight bill passes, they would work on a campaign based on amnesty to get properties registered, hoping to avoid the  $500 fine, and at the same time, be able to give those property owners, and their renters, better information.

"We just want them to be registered. That way they have that knowledge, we've done the outreach. We want to make sure the renters also know their rights and responsibilities, so that if something isn't being done right by the landlord they would let us know."

Before exiting City Council after last session, then-City Councilman Bud Freel said the current process could take 10-12 months to reach a verdict, while the civil system would cut that down to three-to-four months.

Seven councilmembers have signed on as co-sponsors of the bill: Cabrera, Chris Johnson, Nathan Field, Bregetta Fields, Loretta Walsh, James Spadola, and Zanthia Oliver.

Of note, Oliver voted against a form of the blight bill last October. Johnson and Walsh voted for it.

Shané Derby, who has been working with the H.O.M.E.S. Campaign [Housing, Opportunity, Mobility, Equity, and Stability] to look at the overall impact of housing besides landlord code enforcement said she hasn't had enough time to decide whether she is in favor of the legislation in its current form.

Cabrera said that the landlord ordinance is just part of an overall package that council will be debating over the upcoming month, calling it a first step.

Wilmington City Council will consider the legislation during their Thursday meeting. It is scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m.