Government & Politics  January 18, 2023

FoCo council postpones consideration of new rental program

FORT COLLINS – Reacting to staunch opposition from members of the public and philosophical questions about the role of government, the Fort Collins City Council, in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, voted 6-1 to postpone indefinitely a first-reading vote on a citywide rental-housing program that would have mandated registration and periodic city inspections of rental units.

The vote, with only council member Kelly Ohlson dissenting, came at nearly 1 a.m. Wednesday in the seventh hour of a marathon meeting in which more than 100 members of the public took turns at the microphones in council chambers, mostly supporting or opposing a revamp of the city’s land-use code but also speaking largely against the proposed rental program. Discussion of the issue didn’t begin until after 11 p.m. Tuesday.

The proposed rental-housing regulation program, part of the city’s Housing Strategic Plan and Our Climate Future plan, would require all property owners who rent to tenants to enroll their properties into the program, including both owner-occupied properties and renter-occupied properties. Inspectors would evaluate the health and safety of units based upon a comprehensive list of minimum habitability standards, although limited exemptions could be granted for properties less than 10 years old and for affordable-housing developments that are already inspected by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

The inspections would be held once every five years. For multi-unit buildings in which units share the same property owner, properties would be inspected on a percentage basis based on the number of units in the building.

According to the city’s proposal, “implementation of the inspections would be staggered, with city staff inspecting roughly 20% of the rental housing stock each year. As a result, the program will not reach full implementation until five years after the end of the initial start-up phase. Units will then be inspected every five years after their first, initial inspection.”

The current complaint-based rental inspection system would remain in place.

Had the council approved the plan on first and second reading, the program would have begun with a startup phase this year, followed by full implementation of the program in 2024.

The proposed plan was drafted because even though more than 40% of all housing units in Fort Collins are renter-occupied, the city does not conduct proactive rental property inspections for health, safety and habitability.

The city maintains only a complaint-based rental inspection system to promote safe and habitable housing for renters.

Feedback the city received during the year of engagement with landlords, tenants and others was largely repeated during the public comment period Tuesday. Concerns from tenants centered around alleged discrimination as well as the fear of retaliation or loss of housing if renters reported substandard or unsafe units. Landlords and property managers expressed concerns about the cost of the program, whether both small and large landlords would be treated fairly, and a lack of trust in the city. One commenter called the plan “a gross overreach into private property rights of citizens,” another called it “pandering” to Colorado State University students at the expense of property owners,” and yet another expressed fears that landlords would be treated with the assumption of guilt. Instead, several suggested, the complaint system should be kept in place and made public, so housing consumers could review the data and decide for themselves where to rent.

Ohlson defended the program, saying he viewed the inspections as “a basic city service. We’re not looking for Taj Mahals but for basic livability. Rental properties are a business, and one of our jobs is to regulate business.”

His lone vote to not put off consideration of the program, he said, was because “I don’t know what new information we’re going to get.”

Fort Collins Housing Manager Meaghan Overton said upgrading the city’s software to handle the generated data would cost about $50,000, but Ohlson responded that “this isn’t really about money. This program is going to be self-supporting.

“I’m a firm believer in appropriate regulations,” he said. “There are units that are illegal, and they don’t want that found out. That’s exactly why we should be inspecting. You’re not going to get in trouble in most cases; you’re just going to have to comply.”

Council member Emily Francis added that “we need to address renter stability and the health of our housing. I don’t know how we do that without inspections.”

But Mayor Jeni Arndt questioned “the ability of the city to inspect 40% of our housing stock.” Some commenters said a public registry of rental units made sense because people would know who to call in case of problems, but council member Susan Gutowsky pointed out that “property owners can stand behind an LLC screen so we don’t know who they are.”

Other council members expressed similar reservations. Shirley Peel cited the need “to explore more options,” Tricia Canonico cited “an imbalance of power between tenants and landlords,” and Julie Pignataro, recalling complaints she heard in the meeting about too little public participation in drafting the revamped land-use codes, said “we didn’t bring everyone along on this one either.”

FORT COLLINS – Reacting to staunch opposition from members of the public and philosophical questions about the role of government, the Fort Collins City Council, in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, voted 6-1 to postpone indefinitely a first-reading vote on a citywide rental-housing program that would have mandated registration and periodic city inspections of rental units.

The vote, with only council member Kelly Ohlson dissenting, came at nearly 1 a.m. Wednesday in the seventh hour of a marathon meeting in which more than 100 members of the public took turns at the microphones in council chambers, mostly supporting or opposing…

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