High rent, low quality: Poor conditions irk renters; officials look at ways to address issue

The Warren Sentinel

FRONT ROYAL — Flushing toilets, taking showers and washing laundry are everyday tasks usually accomplished without negative consequences. In Candi Plaugherís recent house, however, heavy water usage would cause a septic tank to flood her backyard.

"It wasn't a puddle, it was kind of like a stream going through the backyard," Plaugher said."We could smell it in the house, and you couldn't go outside because youíd gag."

Two months after the first leak, Plaugherís landlords had the tank ìjerry rigged,î she said. The leaks resumed a month later and the tank was never fixed again, she said, because the landlord claimed not to have money for repairs. The house was ìcompletely unlivable,î Plaugher said. Other unaddressed issues included a hole in the ceiling, leaks and weak floors.

Though extreme, the conditions at Plaugherís house are not unique in Warren County.

An inquiry about rental conditions on the Facebook group Whatís Up Front Royal received more than 100 responses. Not all were negative, and some complimented their houseís conditions and landlords.

But most renters who responded described issues including cracked walls, mold, leaks, holes in the ceiling, sinking floors, bedbugs, roaches, contaminated water, exposed wires, and more.

These conditions could be accounted for by the fact that rentals do not stay on the market long, Exit Premier agent Jim Clark said. Landlords know they will find occupants regardless of conditions.

He estimated about 75 percent of area properties are in poor condition, which he chalked up to a high demand and low supply of rental properties.

At any given time in Warren County, Clark said, there are between five and 10 properties available in the multiple listing system. That is compared to what he imagines to be between 50 and 100 renters seeking homes on any given day.

Many of the Facebook responses said landlords disregarded requests for repairs. One request was not ignored; a man said he was threatened with

The responses were a small sample, considering Warren Countyís 39,155 population as of July 1, 2016, according to U.S. Census Bureau.

There were 16,268 housing units in the county as of the same date, with about 23 percent of them being rentals from 2011 to 2015. Within town limits, the census says about 46 percent of housing units are rentals.

Rental conditions were discussed during a recent Town Council public hearing regarding a proposed property maintenance and rental inspections program, which would cover 300 units in the downtown area and require inspections every four years, or more if there is a known violation.

Virginia law prevents locality-wide rental inspection districts and units outside of the earmarked zone would be considered on a case by case basis, Front Royal Town Attorney Doug Napier said.

Councilman Eugene Tewalt estimated that implementing the inspection program would cost the town between $150,000 and $190,000. That includes hiring an inspector, a secretary, perhaps a part-time inspector, and providing a vehicle. It would without a doubt cause a tax increase, he said.

Tewalt said the program could be an asset to the community if handled properly, but he would have to examine costs and the budget before making a final decision.

Councilman Chris Morrison said he strongly supports the program. Potential costs, he said, are "not a lot of money" and could be partially recouped through inspection fees. He does not understand why the council would ìgrovelî over $160,000, but spend millions on construction and roads.

"Republicans love to create jobs. I don't know why they can't get behind creating two jobs," he said.

Attorney and local landlord David Silek said that a way to maneuver around establishing a rental inspections program would be to enforce the public nuisance law. While Napier agreed that could work in the case of bedbugs being spread around town by tenants or visitors of an infested apartment, issues such as a crack in the wall would not constitute a public nuisance.

Morrison has had eyes on the proposed program since its inception. About 2Ω years ago, as a private citizen, Morrison requested the matter be put before Council. The matter was then sent to the Planning Commission, of which Morrison was a member.

The town previously had an inspections program, which was cancelled for reasons that Morrison said included unfair enforcement and disgruntled employees. Citizens fear a new program would mean more of the same, he said.

The old program, however, was not as well planned as the new proposal, which is the result of hundreds of hours of research over three years, Morrison said.

He is in favor of the program because police officers and the building inspectors have no authority to take action.

"There's a free playing ground for slumlords to reign in Front Royal," Morrison said.

He noted the vote was delayed after several citizens spoke in favor of the program compared to a couple of landlords.

"It seems like an individual in a suit testifying at public hearings is the equivalent of 34 people ... 34 people can come up there and give you a sob story, but if one man comes up there in a suit and looks dignified, it changes the course of everything," Morrison said.

Independence Realty agent Lynn Deel said Front Royal is supposed to be moving forward. She added that she said she thinks it is, but officials cannot police everything.

Silek said he thinks the proposal is "laughable."

"It's silly, and it will only actually increase rents like it did last time, and become a headache," Silek said.

Silek said the rental inspection program would likely require landlords to perform tasks that would not affect safety or health conditions.

The rental inspection program would be unfair to owners because a tenant could bring in bedbugs or break a window, and the landlord would be held responsible, Silek said. The inspections program would be legally challenged if passed.

"I will challenge it, then I have several clients that will challenge it," he said. "If the first lawsuit doesnít work, then weíll file another one. If that doesn't work, we'll file another one."

Clark does not mind the idea of a rental inspection program, but he would rather see a group of landlords work together and help each other. He thinks each property should be graded, with an appropriate price range for varying conditions.

In the Facebook responses and at the public hearing, one property owner's name was repeatedly mentioned as a "slumlord."

Attempts to reach that landlord for comment were unsuccessful.

Silek represented one of that landlordís tenants in a court case regarding poor house conditions. Although the conditions were deplorable, they were allowed by the lease, he said.

ìThere is a test in law school called the test of unconscionability. If your first reaction to hearing something is ëoh my god,í it just failed the test of unconscionability,î he said.

The lease required tenants to provide heat, extermination and ìall of the basics," Silek said. His first reaction to the lease was "oh my god."

Though nefarious, the lease was legal and people should be aware of what they sign, he said.

Of negative rental conditions, Deel asked, ìwhy are you still living there?î

Several residents said these houses were all they could afford, and barely so.

Silek said demand for rentals does not greatly exceed supply. Rather, people are not willing to pay the market price for rent.

Deel noted that there are plenty of local properties in good condition. She said Independence usually renovates houses before renting, while Silek said he does not rent a house in which he would not live.

"If you accept a lesser quality, then that's your choice," Deel said.

Between 2011 and 2015, Warren Countyís median gross rent was $915, according census data. During that period, about 18 percent of citizens making between $20,000 and $34,999 spent more than half of their incomes on rent.

Prices steadily increased in Warren County between 2005 to 2013, with the number of renters paying $1,000 per month more than tripling.

"The price has gotten such that people who are looking decide that itís almost impossible to afford something that is nice. A nice property is just almost unaffordable," Clark said.

Front Royal Warren County County Economic Development Authority Chairman Greg Drescher said there is a need for more affordable and higher quality rentals.

"There are not enough rentals that many of our folks would choose to live in," Drescher said.

There are however, lower priced rentals and more suitable homes outside of Front Royal and Warren County, he said.

Silek said those who cannot afford to live in Warren County do not have to live here. The free market is a simple reality, and no one forces anyone to live on bad properties.

"I would like to live in McLean, Va., where I work. But guess what? I canít afford to live in McLean, Va., where I work. So, I live elsewhere," he said.

Both Silek and Deel said that many local renters work east of Warren County. Citizensí average commute time is about 40 minutes, according to census data.

Drescher said there is a specific need for housing to reflect community wages, especially those of service professionals in education, health care, law enforcement and more.

That should be provided by the proposed EDA workforce housing project, but those units would be filled by whoever gets there first, he said.

While renters may think prices are too high, Deel and Silek explained that landlords must see a certain profit margin. The inspections program could mean higher rent, Silek said.

Factors landlords consider while setting rent prices include property taxes, renovations and maintenance. Independence Realty must also factor in employee salaries.

Making money as a landlord is no easy task, and Silek said he would like to charge a higher rent because of how long it takes to earn money on properties.

"People donít want to wake up. It's not where coffee and a gallon of gas is 25 cents anymore," Deel said. "If you want to have $500 a month for your rent or your mortgage, then go buy a house, but itís not the same."

Threats of higher rent prices is merely a "scare tactic," Morrison said.

Landlords who rent out houses in poor condition already get "substantially more money than they should be getting for the rent," he said.

The Town Council is tentatively scheduled to discuss the program at its Nov. 6 work session.

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