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City Rental Inspections on Horizon?

Reinstatement of former rental unit safety and maintenance inspection to be reviewed by council.

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Condominium units occupied by renters in the City of Fairfax, like these ones at Fairfax West Condominiums, could see new safety and maintenance inspections if City Council members reinstate a rental inspection program in the coming months.

On Nov. 13, the Fairfax City Council will review a plan that could reinstate a program allowing city officials to inspect certain residential rental units for health and maintenance code compliance.

The original program ran from 1998 until it was suspended in 2005 as a result of changes to legislation at the Virginia General Assembly. Under the new guidelines, the program can no longer be administered citywide, according to city documents.

Changes to the program would require the city to designate certain neighborhoods for the inspections where the residential units are older than 4-years-old, according to Andrew Wilson, Fairfax City assistant chief for code administration.

According to Wilson, the program is all about ensuring resident safety and upkeep of rental units.

"We’ve found that when owners don’t live in these homes, there can be more of an opportunity for the home to fall into disrepair," he said. "So the primary purpose of the inspection program is to make sure that rental occupants of homes or condominiums are getting the necessary attention from their property owners."

BEFORE THE program is initiated, City Council members will review its parameters and be presented by city staff with a list of neighborhoods that may be subject to the inspections. The first review is scheduled to come during a regular work session on Nov. 13, ahead of a public hearing of the program where council will solicit public opinion before voting on its possible reinstatement.

If approved, the program could include as many as 600 of a total 1,700 rental units in the City of Fairfax. Those would include an estimated 500 of the city’s 700 approximate rental homes and condominiums and 100 of the city’s 1,000 apartment building units, according to Wilson.

"What we’re going to be doing as we go forward with this is looking for the support of the neighborhood community associations," he said. "We want to see who will stand up and want to be included in this thing."

Property owners who are renting their residential units within the designated areas would then have six months to register for a prescheduled safety inspection. Units determined to be in violation of codes would have an opportunity to fix the problems or face fines, Wilson added.

THE PROGRAM will include periodic inspections — about once every four years — of the state-endorsed safety and building maintenance code standards. Inspectors would look for the presence of smoke detectors, structural deficiencies, damage to the property and make sure that the residence meets basic electricity and plumbing standards, Wilson said.

The inspections can also be used to check for evidence of overcrowding within the units, he added.

"I think that there is a general interest among the neighborhoods to keep the rental units in their communities up to the level of maintenance that the owners are maintaining," Wilson said. "If you were a property owner, why wouldn’t you want the property owner who isn’t living next door to you have more responsibility to keep his property maintained?"

A REGULAR inspection program might be the perfect answer to some of the older units in town that have become too deteriorated with their age, said Kyle Peterson, a two-year condominium owner of Fairfax West Condominiums and a member of the community’s civic association board.

"With many of the areas where there are rental units, the owners, they don’t keep them up as well as they might if they were living in them," Peterson said. "So this would be a great opportunity to put the onus back on the owners, so to speak."

But Ken Moreland, president of the Mosby Woods Condominium Association, is more wary of a program that allows for more control of rental residents’ lives.

"It could become too intrusive," he said. "I think that if they’re looking for health issues … or safety concerns then it’s fine.

"But whether or not the apartment needs painting or there needs to be new rugs in the place, that’s really none of their business."

For councilmember Jeff Greenfield, the program might be best served as another tool to prevent possible cases of residential overcrowding in the city.

"We want to do what we can to maintain an aggressive program," that promotes certain standards of living, Greenfield said. "We, as a city, have done a good job at keeping things like overcrowding down … but we’re trying to be on top of this and stay ahead of the issue."

While Councilmember Joan Cross declined to comment on specifics of the program, she said that she would like to see how it can be used as a tool to prevent cases of overcrowding.

"I think it’s a good thing to look at, but I’m not exactly sure if it’s the exact direction that we want to go in," she said. "Whether we can address [overcrowding] in other ways is something that I would like to know before we go any further with this program."

Fairfax residents would do right to consider any tool that can be used as a way to limit overcrowding violations, Peterson said.

"When you look at the number of health problems and community issues that can be created in units that are overcrowded, it definitely is worth it," he said.