Landlords pan inspection plan

Property owners oppose possible ordiance requiring new inspections and fees.

By: Joseph Harvie
   Owners and managers of apartments in South Brunswick are criticizing a Township Council proposal to require inspections and charge landlords $75 each time a unit changes tenants.
   Property owners interviewed by the South Brunswick Post over the last several weeks said they oppose the proposed ordinance because of the fees associated with it. They also said the ordinance would add work to the leasing office and prevent apartments from turning over as quickly as they currently do. They also were upset that the landlords that do maintain their properties were being punished because of problems at another complex.
   The council began discussing an inspection ordinance, based on one used in Plainsboro, after tenants at Deans Apartments on Blackhorse Lane complained to the council about problems there. The tenants have complained that the complex is in disrepair and dangerous and that management has not been responsive. The nonprofit organization Volunteers of America, which specializes in purchasing, renovating and maintaining affordable housing, is in the process of buying Deans Apartments from Property Management Co. of North Adams, Mass.
   The proposed ordinance, which has not been introduced, would require the inspection of rental units each time there is a change in occupancy. At the Dec. 6 council work session, the council agreed to begin the program in the second quarter of 2006.
   Township Manager Matt Watkins said two part-time inspectors would be hired to do the inspections and, if needed, additional inspectors could be contracted out. He said a $75 fee per inspection would be levied. The program would cover the multi-unit developments: Barrett Gardens, Deans Apartments, East Gardens, Fresh Ponds Village, Kingston Terrace, Princeton Horizon, Royal Oaks and South Ridge Woods.
   Property owners and management at several complexes said they were concerned about the inspection program, especially its cost. The Post interviewed representatives from three complexes and representatives and representatives from the Property Owners Association of New Jersey, a private group that represents property owners in the state. The rest either did not comment or did not return calls.
   Paul Donovan, chief financial officer for Salem Management Company, which manages Barrett Gardens on Route 27 in Kendall Park, said ordinances like the one proposed are more about fee generation than maintaining properties.
   "They want to reduce tax the burden and create an additional bureaucracy," Mr. Donovan said. "That is my take on it. I don’t see it as a necessity. South Brunswick doesn’t have any slums."
   Maintaining property is something a successful management company would want to do, according to Mr. Donovan. He said if the township wants to target poorly run apartments, they should do so individually.
   "What they should do is handle it on a case-by-case, complaint basis," Mr. Donovan said.
   Mr. Donovan said that the management company for Barrett Gardens does not regularly inspect its apartments, but does look into problems when complaints are received.
   "We don’t do apartment by apartment searches for sake of privacy," Mr. Donovan said. "When we get called to do a repair, we do look at other things to make sure there is not something that is out of line."
   Leslie Rieder, landlord, property manager and one of the principal owners of Royal Oaks and East Gardens apartment complexes, said that most property owners who also manage complexes want to maintain their investments. They do not want to rent apartments that are in poor condition.
   "We do safety checks of the apartments on a yearly basis," Mr. Reider said. "We do routine maintenance. We change furnace filters twice a year, in the spring and the fall. We keep it pretty hands-on with our apartments."
   Mr. Rieder said that the proposed inspections and the paperwork associated with them would make more work for the staff in leasing offices.
   "The process of having to go through official inspections is going to create a hardship on the leasing office and the township," Mr. Reider said. "It will be a lot of paperwork within the township and the township’s inundated with paperwork already. The building department has been carrying a big load over the last 10 years, it will be one more bit of paperwork to get things right."
   Mr. Rieder said the ordinance is being proposed to address problems in one complex, where an absentee landlord let the complex go down hill. He said it isn’t fair to punish all owners because of this.
   "The whole idea of this ordinance came out of an out-of-town owner on a small residential property that had some nightmares," Mr. Rieder said. "That’s not the general rule. I don’t know if that’s the way to govern everybody by a few rotten apples."
   Bruce Gudin, general counsel for the Property Owners Association of New Jersey, said the association is not opposed to rental ordinances such as the one that South Brunswick is proposing, but does not like the fees associated with them.
   Mr. Gudin splits landlords into two categories. First there are "good" landlords that want to keep their property in top shape. They inspect apartments themselves each time there is a change in tenants and make repairs when necessary, he said.
   "The good landlords have always been good landlords," Mr. Gudin said. "They are concerned with issues such as working smoke detectors, GFI (Ground Fault Interrupted) outlets in wet areas such as kitchens and bathrooms, making sure there are cover plates on electrical outlets and switches and screens on windows."
   The second group he classified as "not professional," or "casual," landlords, who do not keep apartments up to code and do not inspect apartments each time there is a change in tenants.
   "It is a good idea that these casual landlords be checked out and inspected," Mr. Gudin said. "They are not typically the landlords that are problem-free. That is usually where problems lie."
   The problem with the ordinance being proposed is that good landlords may be billed for inspections that are not necessary, because landlords already are performing, he said.
   "If I’m a good landlord, I may have a large project with a large turnover rate," Mr. Gudin said. "I may be turning over several apartments every month. I know they are up to code and now I have to pay a fee to confirm they are up to code. To me it will be viewed as another governmental fee that I should be able to avoid somehow."
   Singling out good complexes from bad complexes would help limit the amount of work being done by inspectors and also limit the number of inspection fees that "good" landlords have to pay, Mr. Gudin said.
   Matt Shapiro, president of the New Jersey Tenants Organization, which represents tenants at the state level, said that rental ordinance such as the one proposed by South Brunswick benefit both the tenant and the landlord.
   "It has a benefit to the landlords," Mr. Shapiro said. "It gives credence that the landlord has an apartment that meets code requirements and establishes ground rules so when a tenant leaves they are to leave the apartment in same normal shape it was rented in."
   Mr. Shapiro said it also protects a tenant who often does not get to see the unit they are moving in, until moving day. He said it ensures the tenant that the apartment is in proper order.
   "It avoids the kind of problems that come up when promises are made before a tenant actually sees an apartment," Mr. Shapiro said. "Then when you move into the apartment you find that it is a real mess."