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Wilmington pre-rental inspection ordinance passes, but will likely be vetoed

Sophia Schmidt, Delaware Public Media

Yet another attempt to improve the rental stock in Wilmington will likely fail.

Wilmington City Council passed an ordinance Thursday requiring pre-rental inspections of all residential rental units, which the City hasn’t done for more than a decade.

But Mayor Mike Purzycki is likely to veto the measure, an official in his office said Friday.

The ordinance requires landlords to seek City inspection before starting a new lease or renewing one for an existing renter. Inspections of rental buildings are currently required every two or five years depending on the size, but some council members say the Department of Licenses and Inspection (L&I) does not do enough.

Critics of the pre-rental ordinance argued it would not effectively crack down on bad landlords and may cost too much during the pandemic recession.

The ordinance, sponsored by outgoing Democratic at-large Councilman Sam Guy, says it would cost the City $541,000 annually, based on an estimated 15,000 rental units with a 25 percent vacancy rate. City officials say there are several thousand more rental units in the city.

“The fiscal impact alone in the middle of a pandemic is insurmountable for a city our size,” said Councilman Chris Johnson.

Johnson called the ordinance “not reality-based.”

“It’s going to be unworkable, forcing people out in the streets because they can’t go into a home because it hasn’t been inspected,” he said.

Retiring Councilman Bud Freel, one of the architects of the Purzycki-backed anti-blight legislation that failed this fall, argued no “slumlord” will voluntarily report to the city when a tenant moves out.

“No landlord that has bad properties, that’s not taking care of the properties, is going to call L&I and ask for an inspection,” he said. “It’s just not going to happen.”

Outgoing Republican at-large Councilman Ciro Adams was one of the measure’s champions.

“The only way we have to protect the tenants who are the residents of the City of Wilmington is by doing rental inspections,” he said. “I was always appalled by the amount of inspections we do each year.”

The City averaged 200 rental inspections per year in 2017, according to the Mayor’s office, but performed close to 2,000 in 2019. Inspections are “down significantly” in 2020 because of the coronavirus, but “all emergencies are being handled as needed,” said John Rago, Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy and Communications.

The City has not done pre-rental inspections since 2007. The current administration failed to restart them in 2018, despite stating an intent to do so before receiving four additional inspectors in the Fiscal Year 2019 budget.

Rago wrote in an email Friday there is “no way” for the City’s 18 inspectors to do timely pre-rental inspections on the 18,000 rental units citywide.

“The numbers did not work then and they do not work now,”  Rago said.

The pre-rental inspections ordinance passed with seven votes—after Councilwoman Zanthia Oliver changed her vote from ‘present’ to ‘yes.’ It would go into effect July 1, 2021, under a floor amendment by Councilwoman Yolanda McCoy. It would also be subject to a review of efficacy after one year.

Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.
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