The condition of Pulaski County’s rental housing is creating a crisis for the county’s health and building departments. Director of Environmental Health Terri Hansen told the advisory plan commission Tuesday she had to deal with 530 environmental complaints last year. Nearly 400 of them related specifically to housing.
“These are upstanding citizens who are renting out dumps,” she said. “People can’t afford to move into somewhere nicer. They make some sort of verbal agreement, ‘Well, I’ll fix the water heater, if you let me move in.’ It never works out. People call my office. They want me to come out, yell at the landlord. The landlord gets mad, kicks them out. They show up at my office, ‘We don’t have anywhere to live. We’re living in a car.’”
Hansen felt the county could stop a lot of the complaints by requiring homes to be inspected before a tenant moves in. Occupancy permits could also bring in some extra revenue to the county.
She explained that the health department works under the state’s guidelines to determine whether a home is fit for human habitation, but there isn’t much of a mechanism in place to hold landlords accountable. “This could be stopped if the landlords knew they couldn’t keep renting these out in the conditions they’re in,” Hansen said. “These are horrible conditions. I mean, sure, they might have been great when they were checked when it was fairly new or when it first moved onto the lot, but since then, the skirting is down, the pipes have frozen, the pipes have burst, people are living there with no water, they’ve got the neighbor’s hose. The stools don’t flush. The floors are caving in. Everything’s moldy. The roof is leaking. Electrical sockets are hanging loose. There’s no windows. There’s no screens. There’s no steps.”
Hansen added that the environmental complaints are taking up more and more of her time, and the building department is facing similar issues. “That’s all I’m getting done,” she said. “I have a huge job, and I’m so far behind, just because of complaints that can’t wait. We’re talking about people’s lives. The people that are kicked out now have a seven-month pregnant wife and two little kids living in a car because the landlord kicked them out because they got us involved, which they should have because it’s horrible.”
Community Development Commission Executive Director Nathan Origer noted that the county considered some sort of occupancy permit system several years ago, but it didn’t get much traction. But he wasn’t sure if such a decision would technically be up to the plan commission or the county commissioners.
All three commissioners were at Tuesday’s plan commission meeting. Commissioner Mike McClure thought such a program should fall under a larger nuisance ordinance that would also regulate owner-occupied housing. Commissioner Kenny Becker was skeptical that landlords would ever end up paying any fines that would be imposed. The idea of hiring a code enforcement officer would also have to be considered.