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City Council mulls rental housing ordinance

Education, not legislation, was the response last night by a room full of landlords and real estate agents when the Sunnyside City Council considered a possible rental housing ordinance.

The discussion took place Monday night during council's regular meeting. Sunnyside's proposed ordinance borrows from a similar ordinance in Pasco that was recently upheld by the State Supreme Court.

The ordinance would call for inspections by the city or other licensed inspectors of homes or apartments prior to each rental, to make sure the housing units comply with the Uniform Housing Code.

In addition, landlords would pay an annual business license of $50 for the first residential rental, plus $10 for each additional unit.

The ordinance also offers what the city calls a voluntary crime-free rental housing program in which Sunnyside police would provide free training for landlords.

The training program didn't draw much comment, other than concerns that it in fact remain voluntary.

The rental housing proposal, though, drew a steady stream of concerns and opposition.

Realtor Kenny Nelson told council that at least half of the homes in Sunnyside fail to meet the Uniform Housing Code and wondered how the city could keep up with the demand for inspections. He noted a typical home inspector will charge $250 for an inspection, while the ordinance only charges landlords $20 for an inspection by a city official.

Jon Nelson owns The Heights apartments on Harrison Hill and he pointed out that tenants already have rights and need to be educated about them. He then noted more than $7,000 in damages by a series of three tenants which forced him to sell a rental house. "You want to protect the tenants, how about protecting us?" he said.

Landlord Bob Mattingly echoed the need for educating tenants to the rights they already have, and volunteered his time to help with an education effort.

Another landlord, Troy Fodor, added the city already has laws on the books that can be enforced on a tenant's behalf.

Sunnyside realtor Tom Biehl submitted a two-page, single-spaced typed letter to council full of concerns. One of those was a caution about potential liability for the city if an injury results in a residence following a rental inspection in which a city official misses a hazard.

While the audience was unified in its opposition to the proposal, council was decidedly split.

Council members Bill Gant and Theresa Hancock favored the idea as a way to protect tenants from substandard housing. Mayor Paul Garcia also liked the move, noting he has heard of tenants living in rental units that had holes in the floors.

Interim City Manager Mark Kunkler reminded council that the proposal "is driven by what we're experiencing with housing in Sunnyside."

Kunkler noted that police and other city officials have said that on visits to some rental units in the course of duty they have discovered substandard housing. "Our concern is the life, health and safety of the tenants," he said.

Even so, Councilman Bruce Epps opposes the measure.

While agreeing there is substandard housing in the city, Epps said he doesn't agree with the ordinance which, he feels, punishes all landlords, good and bad.

Also opposed to the idea is Councilman Tom Gehlen, who felt the inspections may violate the rights of tenants still living in the rental units.

On a personal note, Councilwoman Carol Stone said her mother recently died and her daughter is currently living in the home. "Does that make me a landlord," she asked. "Does she (her daughter) need an inspection?"

Gant admitted the proposal may not be perfect, but added, "We've got some issues here (with substandard housing) and we've got to start somewhere."

Council's next step with the rental law proposal is to have a public hearing, likely sometime this month, that would allow more public comment.

Kunkler also pledged to work with the real estate and landlord community in fine-tuning the proposal.

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