The Henderson City Council’s Community Development Committee met yesterday at 7:00 p.m. at City Hall.
In addition to committee members Lonnie Davis, Mary Emma Evans, and Chair Garry Daeke, the meeting was also attended by Council members Bobby Gupton, Ranger Wilkerson, and Elissa Yount.
Members of the Community Development Advisory Committee were also present at the meeting as well as local attorney Michael Satterwhite, who represents the interests of landlords who would potentially be affected by the changes proposed to the City’s Minimum Housing Ordinance as well the controversial Certificate of Occupancy ordinance.
After opening the meeting, Daeke reviewed the events of the last meeting of his committee. He then told those present that on the morning of Friday, August 3, with reference to a list of issues presented by Satterwhite, that he, Planning and Community Development Director Erris Dunston, and City Attorney John Zollicoffer had “made a few changes — mainly wording”.
Zollicoffer commented that the most significant change was to the Certificate of Occupancy ordinance. He said that the appeals process had be altered to correlate to the Minimum Housing Code. He also stated that “minor” wording changes had also been made.
The City Attorney also said that they had “tweaked a few words” in the Minimum Housing Code.
This would make what was presented at last night’s meeting the ninth version. The only change that was made at yesterday’s meeting was the addition of a word that left out for the reason of typographical error.
Daeke noted that references to “inspectors” had been altered because the inspections are expected to be “cursory”, indicating that they would not require a high level of training by the person conducting the inspection.
Dunston explained that the Minimum Housing Code and Certificate of Occupancy ordinance work in conjunction with each other. She said that while the purpose of the Minimum Housing Code was to make sure that all dwellings in Henderson are fit for human habitation, the Certificate of Occupancy ordinance ensures that citizens in rental dwellings are living in standard housing.
Evans challenged Dunston’s argument, asking what the Certificate of Occupancy would do that the Minimum Housing Code would not.
Zollicoffer replied to Evans’ question, indicating that the new ordinance allows the City to inspect on its own volition.
Daeke stated that he thought [the Minimum Housing Ordinance] was a “good change”. He said that items regarding screens and kerosene heaters had been updated.
The chair asked rhetorically if rental properties need special attention. Answering his own question, he stated that the Certificate of Occupancy ordinance allows a “systematic” process [of inspection] to begin when the water is turned on.
Essentially, the Minimum Housing Code is complaint-driven. A resident may request an inspection or an inspection may be requested by a petition of five signatures. The Certificate of Occupancy ordinance would require a permit no less than every two years.
Zollicoffer called the Certificate of Occupancy ordinance “an additional enforcement tool”.
Daeke asked Dunston what would be missed if one ordinance were on the books but not the other.
“I think both ways are necessary to address the housing problem,” Dunston said.
Daeke agreed that items would be missed without both ordinances. He noted, however, that a dysfunctional ordinance need not remain on the books.
“No ordinance is a law forever,” Daeke said.
Dunston emphasized for members that she believes the two ordinances combat the same problem, that being what she characterized as a “critical” housing condition in the City. She said that the existing ordinance was antiquated and said that the [Minimum Housing Ordinance] had been modernized to the point where the City can enforce it.
“[I’m] not trying to play the political game,” Dunston said.
Evans asked Dunston again if people could be “looked after” with the existing Minimum Housing Ordinance. Dunston replied that two tools [of enforcement] are better.
Stating the the Council should be good stewards of taxpayer money, Evans made reference to a confidential letter the committee had received from Zollicoffer. She said she believed that the Certificate of Occupancy ordinance would cost taxpayers money “when we start getting lawsuits”.
“I’m not playing political games, either,” Evans said.
She characterized the Certificate of Occupancy ordinance as something the City wants to enable it to go into people’s houses.
Dunston answered that the ordinance in question was intended not to inconvenience people, as inspections would be made early in the moving process of tenants.
Evans demanded to know why Zollicoffer’s letter was not used. Daeke countered that it was used and that Evans had been informed of it.
Zollicoffer commented that the Minimum Housing Code is “considerably broader” than the corresponding state statutes, especially in that it enables inspectors to make inspections “on his own motion”. He also said that the Certificate of Occupancy is used by some cities as an additional police tool to do systematic inspections, as inspections become mandatory when a certificate is required.
The City Attorney also said that some cities are having trouble with funding and personnel for inspections.
Yount argued that the inspections called for in the City ordinance are no different than Section 8 or Migrant Inspections. Zollicoffer replied that those inspections were under federal rather than state law.
It was later determined that the North Carolina Department of Labor conducts Migrant Inspections for H2 guest workers. Yount claimed later that the state had adopted minimum housing standards to receive HUD money.
Referring to the confidental letter, Gupton asked if there was a reason the press could not have it. Zollicoffer replied that he was not going to release it, and also emphasized that the research he did as reflected in the letter was done by the request of the Council.
Daeke stated that it was time for the committee to make a decision. Evans suggested that the committee “not deal with this one”, referring to the Certificate of Occupancy ordinance.
Satterwhite objected to the committee beginning deliberation, reminding Daeke that he had stated that there would be the opportunity for public input. Although Daeke initially resisted public commentary, he did allow those present to speak.
Douglas Falkner, identifying himself as a CPA with one rental, said that there was “no justification” for inspecting rentals every two years but not homeowners. He said that two classes of people with “two sets of constitutional rights” would be created.
Falkner also said that the Certificate of Occupancy ordinance would violate the 14th Amendment. The relevant portion of the 14th Amendment deals with due process rights and has been linked in legal interpretations to the 4th Amendment, which defines when a search and seizure of person or property is lawful.
Satterwhite then commented that the process has taken “another step back”.
“How can you vote on something you haven’t read?” the attorney asked.
Copies of the final versions of the documents were distributed minutes before the meeting.
Interpreting Zollicoffer’s earlier remarks, Satterwhite claimed that the City had statutory authority for the Minimum Housing Code, but not the Certificate of Occupancy ordinance.
Satterwhite told the committee that the City of Rocky Mount had had to settle a lawsuit for $3 million due to its inspection process.
Yount later said that Satterwhite’s reference to the Rocky Mount lawsuit settlement was an argument for a Certificate of Occupancy.
“What’s the rush now?” Satterwhite asked. He observed that the Council was no longer under a deadline of October 1 that would have been imposed if SB 1507 had passed in the General Assembly.
The Reverend C.J. Dale said that he was concerned that the Certificate of Occupancy ordinance would impact African-Americans the most.
“I think it’s a personal vendetta,” Dale said.
Dale said he would make the Certificate of Occupancy an issue.
“If you think this is going to go away, it’s not,” Dale said.
He advised the committee to slow the process down and research it thoroughly.
City Manager Jerry Moss made reference to an occupied rental unit that was inspected by the city last week under the Minimum Housing Ordinance. Moss described conditions in the house that moved city officials to contact Social Services. According to Moss, the occupants had been in the house for six years.
Audience member Bob Stanley asked if any of the adults in the house were employed or doing anything to help themselves.
“People choose to live in different ways,” Stanley said.
Under the Certificate of Occupancy ordinance, Daeke remarked, the house could not go for more than two years without a City inspection.
Yount observed that the house was reported long before it was inspected. She claimed that the City could have entered it sooner with a Certificate of Occupancy ordinance.
“There is a lot of camouflaging on the outside,” Yount said.
Later, Stanley remarked that the Council’s time would be better spent on economic development. Yount countered that building Henderson’s housing stock was a huge key to economic development.
Dale claimed that the “dysfunction” of the City Council keeps investors away.
Gupton opined that industry looks for good education and low taxes. He also stated that the Council’s role is to build infrastructure, not to recruit industry. He said that “we” have the Economic Development Commission to do that.
Evans contended that if it were not for the landlords that people would be out on the street. She said that she was not trying to promote “slumlords” and that no landlord had told her to say what she had said.
Gupton stated a need for Henderson to compare itself with other cities. He said that things were getting worse, not better.
Satterwhite later retorted that surrounding cities do not have a Certificate of Occupancy ordinance, but that they are in better condition because of socio-economic conditions. He indicated that many people are looking for jobs and echoed Stanley’s sentiment that the Council should be recruiting industry.
The next time the ordinances will be discussed is at a public hearing scheduled for August 13, 2007. The hearing will take place in the absence of any recommendation from the Community Development Committee.
After the hearing, the Council could vote on the ordinance if there is a motion to do so, make changes to the ordinance, or take no action.