Oak Ridge officials are reconsidering a proposal that would allow them to inspect rental homes as part of a program to combat property blight and substandard housing.
It’s been considered before and the Oak Ridge City Council has approved an ordinance establishing the program, but it’s never been implemented, Oak Ridge Community Development Director Kathryn Baldwin said Monday.
Now, the city staff has proposed expanding the program from the Highland View neighborhood to the larger Manhattan District Overlay, which includes Highland View and a swath of properties north of Oak Ridge Turnpike from East Drive in east Oak Ridge to Bryn Mawr Circle in west Oak Ridge. The MDO also includes properties in the Woodland, Scarboro, and Burnham Woods neighborhoods.
The program could include rental unit registrations and structural inspections, possibly every three years, including of roofs, electrical systems, and walls. The city has separate ordinances that govern yards, debris, garbage, and vehicles.
“This would get inside and could evaluate the integrity of the structure,” Baldwin said.
Some of the details still have to be worked out. Among the questions that have to be resolved: Who would conduct the inspections, and who would pay for them?
An earlier plan to use Knoxville’s Community Development Corp. for the Highland View inspections fell through, Baldwin said.
She said Oak Ridge now inspects home structures only under emergency conditions and with a warrant.
“That is a reaction, and we’re trying to be proactive,” she said.
The city has had the authority to implement the program for about seven years. Under a 2006 state law, Oak Ridge and Nashville were authorized to enact a residential rental dwelling unit inspection ordinance “to address properties that are deteriorating or are in the process of deteriorating in order to promote the health, safety, and welfare of their citizens,” the city’s legal staff said at the time. “This law does not allow for citywide inspections, but authorizes Oak Ridge and Nashville to establish ‘districts’ where inspections are greatly needed due to the condition of the properties within a geographic area.”
The rental inspection ordinance was separate from a proposal to license landlords, the legal staff said. One licensing ordinance proposed in 2009 would have included a $25 license feee and inspection provisions. Although landlords generally didn’t say they would oppose it, they had concerns about whether the citywide proposal would have required additional municipal staff members and penalize all landlords for the neglect of a few.
On Monday, the City Council discussed the rental inspection proposal during a non-voting work session.
Council member Chuck Hope said the city needs to consider whether the program could put Oak Ridge at a competitive disadvantage.
“I understand the need for a rental inspection program, but we don’t need to take ourselves out of the market,” Hope said.
Baldwin said city officials are meeting with lawyers, licensed home inspectors, and landlords to discuss the proposed program, and an Aug. 6 meeting has been scheduled with real estate agents. Many of them are in favor of the program, she said.
“These houses hurt the sale of real estate in the remaining areas,” Baldwin said. “This is the reputation we have.”
A blight report published in November 2012 by the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations says many homes in Oak Ridge, most of them small, were meant to be temporary dwelling units. They were built in a three-year period during World War II as ten of thousands of workers moved to the Secret City for the Manhattan Project, the top-secret federal program to build the world’s first atomic weapons.
“Plans were to move them out when the war was over,” the report said. “However, the temporary dwelling units were never moved. Instead, they were sold to private owners, and the units sit there still today, some vacant, some occupied. The buildings are now more than 70 years old, and they are in various stages of disrepair. Many are owned by absentee landlords and are not properly maintained.”
The report said 49 percent of the homes in Oak Ridge were built between 1940 and 1960, and most of the housing north of Oak Ridge Turnpike was built during the war.
One Oak Ridge City Council member had concerns about expanding the proposed program from Highland View, an area that was the initial focus in part because of concerns over the condition of the Applewood Apartments, the subject of a long-running dispute between the city and the Knoxville attorney who owns them.
“You’re talking about expanding a program when you don’t have the resource to handle what’s already in your purview,” Baughn said.
Baldwin said the city staff is hoping to implement the program first and then expand it later.
She said the city has significantly changed its approach to housing property maintenance in the past year, taking a “more proactive role in nuisance abatement and grant-support acquisition and demolition of the worst properties, both rental- and owner-occupied.” But there are repeated cases of property neglect and substandard housing that could addressed by the rental registration ordinance, Baldwin said.