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Boone County pushes for rental regulations

Article originally sourced from Columbia Daily Tribune

"Large towels soaked up the water that poured down into a downstairs apartment on Demaret Drive.

A running washer in an upstairs apartment and poor plumbing were to blame. Living in her apartment for two years, Cindy — who asked to be identified only by first name because of safety concerns — is used to the problem that brings water into her laundry room, kitchen and sometimes the carpeting in her living room.

A 40-year-old grandmother, Cindy thinks about her grandson when her house floods. She watches him every weekend and worries water damage could make him sick. She’s had to shampoo the carpet at least four times since she moved in, hoping to make it safer for her grandson.

Stories like Cindy’s are part of the reason Boone County officials wish the county had rental housing standards. For another legislative session, they’re pushing for state lawmakers to pass a bill to make that oversight possible.

Until recently, Cindy has made minimum wage working as a medication aide for a local retirement center. She said she has paid out-of-pocket for plumbers and electricians to fix problems in her apartment. Cindy said her landlord does not return calls and she can’t wait for him to make the repairs.

Before moving to Demaret, a street known for criminal activity and dilapidated housing, Cindy was living in a shelter.

“I stay here because the rent is cheap,” Cindy said.

The city of Columbia has standards landlords must meet to rent out their properties, protecting tenants from living in unsafe and unhealthy conditions. But in Boone County’s jurisdiction, those rules don’t exist.

Boone County officials for years have tried to put these regulations into place, but that requires a change to state law.

Former state Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, sponsored legislation in four different sessions to allow Boone County to set rental housing standards, but the bills never passed.

Northern District Commissioner Janet Thompson said the county will instruct its lobbyist to advocate for rental housing standards in Boone County for the 2018 session. First, he must find someone to sponsor the bill.

Thompson said the commission receives complaints from tenants about poor living conditions, but has no way to help. Last year, a woman visited the commission’s office and shared her concerns about how her living conditions could harm her children’s health, Thompson said. She had a teenager with developmental disabilities and a small child.

Like many low-income individuals, the woman lived where she did because it’s all she could afford.

The commission and the Boone County Sheriff’s Department have testified in front of state lawmakers, pushing for legislation. Boone County Sheriff’s Department Det. Tom O’Sullivan, who has advocated for rental housing standards in Jefferson City, said the legislation is always opposed by Missouri REALTORS, a group lobbying for property rights. The organization’s lobbyist did not respond to requests for comment and its office was closed for the holidays last week.

“We’ve had problems with slumlords and substandard rental property have been problems as long as I can remember,” O’Sullivan said.

O’Sullivan said Missouri REALTORS have such a powerful lobby that he’s concerned rental housing legislation will never be passed.

City and county

Rental housing standards have been in place in Columbia since the late 1970s, said Leigh Kottwitz, Columbia Neighborhood Services manager. Landlords must obtain a certificate of compliance to rent their properties, which requires an inspection. Inspections include checking for exterior garbage or waste, uneven driveways or sidewalks that are a tripping hazard, cracks in foundation walls, loose or frayed electrical wires and roof problems.

A certificate expires after three years and a landlord can renew the certificate if no complaints are filed with the city. Most properties go six years without an inspection, Kottwitz said.

In fiscal 2017, the office received 141 complaints. Documents provided by the Office of Neighborhood Services show complaints this year vary from infestations of bed bugs, termites and cockroaches, leaking roofs, water damage and mold.

A couple called the office in March to complain about black mold on the ceiling, shower wall and in a bedroom closet as well as other parts of the rental house, according to a complaint recorded by the Office of Neighborhood Services. The bathroom sink was painted to hide the mold, the complaint noted.

After a complaint is made, an inspector typically visits the property the same day or the next business day, Kottwitz said. If inspectors find violations, they contact the landlord to discuss solutions to the problem. Generally, landlords want to fix the issues, she said.

“That’s the underlying goal is to ensure a safe and health environment for tenants,” Kottwitz said. “It also helps protect our neighborhoods, making sure the housing stock meets standards and helps protect value of neighborhoods and those in owner-occupied structures.”

Taking it to court

By the end of the year, Susan Lutton, executive director of Mid-Missouri Legal Services, said the not-for-profit organization will likely have handled 85 habitability cases, half of those concerning Boone County tenants living in poor conditions.

Many of these cases start when landlords go to court after tenants stop paying rent over unlivable housing conditions. Lutton said she advises tenants to contact an attorney or Mid-Missouri Legal Services before they quit paying rent.

At Mid-Missouri Legal Services, attorneys have represented clients whose landlords either don’t complete any repairs or don’t do a proper job of addressing issues, Lutton said.

Bed bugs are a typical example. Landlords might have a building treated once, but eradicating bed bugs needs multiple treatments, she said.

Clients have also had basement walls covered with black mold, posing health risks, especially to children. They’ve also represented clients living in units with dangerous electrical issues. The expense of making repairs is often what stops landlords from fixing problems, she said.

Melanie Derby moved into the Phenora Oaks subdivision in March with her boyfriend and two children, and since then, she has repeatedly sprayed for cockroaches. She keeps her two-bedroom apartment clean, but she’s worried her neighbors in the eight-plex are somehow attracting the bugs.

Her landlord has never hired anyone to exterminate the bugs, so she’s tried her own solutions, such as cockroach bombs. Most of the cockroaches are found in her 17-year-old daughter’s bedroom. Derby said she’s used two or three of the cockroach bombs, but they keep coming back.

“They’re immune to it,” she said.

Once, she picked up her daughter’s mattress off the floor to find dead cockroaches underneath. Derby said she’s paid an exterminator $128 twice to kill the cockroaches. She sifted boric acid around her windowsills to keep the cockroaches out of her apartment.

Without rental housing standards in the county, Derby said there’s no one she can turn to for help."

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