Two candidates for Athens City Council are seeking changes to a proposed ordinance that current council members are considering that, if passed, will crack down on absentee or unresponsive landlords and property owners in Athens.
The ordinance as introduced in early August seeks tougher penalties against landlords who do not fix cited issues within the allotted time the city gives them to address code violations on their properties.
Athens mayoral candidate Damon Krane, a Democratic socialist and opponent of incumbent Mayor Steve Patterson, and Athens City Council at-large candidate Ellie Hamrick, a socialist, both argued during City Council’s Tuesday meeting this week that the new ordinance in its current form isn’t tough enough.
Currently, if a city code violation is not corrected by a property owner within 30 days after the city Code Enforcement office notifies them of the violation, the owner is issued an “order to comply,” and is then given an additional 15 days to correct the issue.
If the issue is still not corrected after that, the code office files a “failure to comply” charge under Athens city code, with the help of the city Law Director’s office. The case then goes through Athens County Municipal Court. If a property owner is found guilty of the non-compliance violation, it’s a minor misdemeanor with a $100 associated fine.
The proposed ordinance attempts to change the charge and fee structure of that section of city code. Under the proposed change, the initial misdemeanor/$100 fine structure would be the same as it is now. However, the next time that person is found guilty of the charge in a two-year period, it becomes a fourth-degree misdemeanor with a $250 fine and the potential for 30 days in jail; the next offense becomes a third-degree misdemeanor with a $500 fine and 60 days in jail; and the penalties continue to escalate from there.
Krane told council that the ordinance seems like a good first step, but noted that it doesn’t mean much if it isn’t enforced strictly (which is not the case with current enforcement, he argued).
“Once upon a time, I rented an apartment on First Street. Code Enforcement had inspected it a few months before I moved in and, at that inspection, found zero violations,” Krane said. “But after I moved in, I found all kinds of problems, from gas leaks, to missing fire-safety equipment, to a roof that was full of holes, to damaged and unsanitary flooring, to clogged plumbing, and mold – and more. And after I brought these problems to the attention of Code Enforcement, they agreed, and they cited my landlord for nearly two-dozen separate code violations.”
However, Krane said that despite city code saying each violation should constitute a “separate and complete offense” for each day it goes uncorrected, his landlord was only fined a total of $75.
He blasted city Law Director Lisa Eliason for allegedly “bending over backwards” to let “slumlords off the hook.”
Eliason had told The NEWS for an article in last week’s edition (Aug. 29) that typically, her office doesn’t file additional charges based on the days of each violation because, for one, it’s “additional paperwork for the court.”
“We also always thought that the judge would run the fines concurrently anyway,” she said. “The purpose (of the code) is to get them (landlords) to comply and make the repair.”
Council candidate Hamrick echoed Krane’s comments, arguing that the city’s Code Enforcement office is understaffed, and said Athens “desperately needs rent control” because of the cost of housing.
“Ask virtually any renter in Athens about their experience with landlords, and you are sure to hear horror stories,” Hamrick said. “Just this week I heard stories from tenants about chronically flooded basements, broken glass, smells of stale urine, roofs caving in, exposed wires, leaking plumbing, extreme humidity, mold, unauthorized entry, and broken fire alarms.”
Asked about Krane’s assertions Wednesday morning, Eliason decline to comment. She told The NEWS in an article last week that the new ordinance’s goal is to get landlords to fix the problems in their rentals.
During Tuesday’s meeting, City Council members, the mayor and other city officials listened to Krane and Hamrick’s comments but didn’t respond publicly.