Gainesville's rental inspections going well beyond stated intent of the program

·8 min read

A city of Gainesville program that was designed to inspect rental properties for safety and energy efficiency standards has been citing landlords for many ornamental details like door paint and landscaping, inspection records show.

Landlords are so unhappy they have hired a lawyer to sue the city.

The more than 500 inspections that have occurred since Oct. 1 include a mixed bag of violations.

Some have been potential life-safety violations, such as no working fire alarms and hazardous wiring.

But many of the violations are not life-threatening, such as toilets and shower heads that the city contends use too much water.

Gainesville landlords and property managers are complaining that the violations go well beyond the stated intent of the program to ensure that units are energy-efficient and safe.

They have hired local attorney Jeff Childers, who said he's preparing a class-action lawsuit that will be filed against the city on the grounds that the inspections are infringing upon property owners' rights.

"The city has fallen in love with mandates," said Childers, who successfully won a legal challenge against the city of Gainesville for its mandated COVID-19 shots for employees.

Childers said inspectors in the rental inspection program, who were previously University of Florida students working under a consulting firm in South Florida, have been randomly naming alleged violations of the rental-unit inspection law.

"I don't think it’s going to fly. We will be challenging it," Childers said.

Childers said the city's program "is a form of regulatory taking without due process."

"You are never provided due process over this on individual basis," he said. "When inspectors go in and require a landlord to pay $6,000 in improvements, what is the venue for a due-process appeal?"

He said another constitutional argument is whether the inspectors have a right to enter the homes without the tenant's approval.

"I mean, they have a right to privacy," he said.

Landlords say the inspections in some cases have cost the homeowners thousands of dollars, which are being passed on to tenants in the form of higher rent.

They also said — and the code enforcement investigation reports bear it out — that inspectors have been ordering landlords to take action to improve aesthetic appearances of the rental units.

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So far, no property owners have been fined for violating the city's law, but some cases where the homeowners did not get a rental permit have been forwarded to a special magistrate, said Andrew Persons, director of the department of sustainable development for Gainesville.

“Long story short, the ordinance includes minimum housing and property maintenance code standards, which cover things like peeling paint, cracks and deterioration, vegetation,” he said.  “In other words, the ordinance covers more than just life safety and energy-efficiency.”

But Gainesville City Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut said she has concerns about the city going this far with the inspections.

“I think it’s worth going back to review it,” she said.

Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos said he’s disappointed that “some landlords don’t want to have properties that meet minimum housing standards for housing.”

Landlords and property managers say they are fed up with how the city has been enforcing the ordinance since it kicked off on Oct. 1.

When commissioners initially discussed adopting the inspections, they said tenants deserve to live in rentals that have adequate energy-efficiency features such as decent insulation to keep their electric bills down.

But the landlords say that any energy bills savings are being offset by the rent increases landlords are simply passing on to tenants.

Under the law, landlords must pay $122 per unit annually for a rental permit. Inspections cost another $100.

“I think it’s way overreach,” said real estate agent Martin Misner.

Misner said he is not opposed to inspections for life-safety codes, but the city inspections have gone way beyond that.

None of the older homes that have been inspected are meeting the new insulation standards, meaning the homeowner in each case is having to pay for new insulation, which is expensive, he said.

Misner said landlords can offer cheaper rent in older homes, but once they have to shell out those dollars, they are simply increasing the rent.

It is unfair for the city to force the owner of a home that was built in the 1960s to have the same insulation as one built in the 2020s, Misner said.

“What’s next? Double pane windows?” he said. “Are they going to make me tear off my roof because you want to see a radiant barrier underneath? Are you going to make me rewire my house because it was wired in the 1960s?”

Elliot Larkin, the owner of Harmony Habitats Realty & Property Management, also said the city inspections have gone well beyond the intent of the program.

“It’s been a nightmare for the owner,” he said.

However, the city’s program has earned praise from the U.S. Department of Energy, which in May gave the city an award for innovation. In particular, the award praised the city’s use of a national energy-efficiency rating system during inspections.

Like the miles-per-gallon rating for a vehicle, the Home Energy Score is a numerical rating from one to 10 that helps homeowners, buyers, and tenants understand how energy-efficient a home or rental unit is and how it compares to other units. The score is based on a unit’s “envelope” – roof, foundation, walls, insulation and windows – as well as its energy systems – heating, cooling, and hot water. The higher the score, the higher a unit’s energy efficiency.

“With each inspection, we’re working to help raise living standards and ensure minimum – and consistent – housing requirements in Gainesville so neighbors can live safely and securely,” Persons said. “As rental property owners and managers make improvements, scores will reflect that.”

Madeline Salzman, DOE Home Energy Score program manager, said rental properties are particularly underserved in terms of efficiency equipment and programs.

“Oftentimes, low-income renters who face high energy burdens have great potential to benefit from efficiency improvements,” said Sazlman. “Home Energy Score can help the city of Gainesville identify energy use trends and opportunities for energy-saving improvements in rental properties.”

Starting on Oct. 1, the city ordinance required attics be insulated to a minimum of R-19.

Under the ordinance, the plumbing system in rental units has to be free of visible leaks.

All toilets must be a three gallon tank, with it being 1.6 gallons in 2026.

The city of Gainesville was using the Coral Cables-based CAP Government, Inc. to do these inspections virtually with the help of University of Florida students who were going into the homes.

Mayor Lauren Poe said that “in response to constructive feedback from landlords, the city has voted to remove the inspection responsibilities from CAP and bring the inspections in-house."

So far, more than 500 rental units have been inspected, with about 80 percent of them found to have had at least one violation.

The violations have been wide-ranging. An inspection report of a home on West University Avenue owned by James Liebl found a lengthy list of violations, saying that parts of the structure “have evidence of deterioration, with wood siding deteriorating, some exterior walls not anchored, level, and free of holes, cracks or breaks or loose and rotting materials.”

An inspector looks over windows of a home on West University Avenue as part of a rental inspection in April. Many violations were found.
An inspector looks over windows of a home on West University Avenue as part of a rental inspection in April. Many violations were found.

The report also said the surface of the home “has peeling, flaking or chipped paint.”

But the inspector only found one violation in Patricia Driscoll’s home - a showerhead that did not comply with the new rules.

The city sent the Weirsdale resident a letter of violation for the showerhead on March 22, telling her that it will cost her an additional $100 for a follow-up inspection.

Another violation cited in an inspection of a home on Southwest First Avenue says that inspectors could not confirm that the showerheads have a 2.2 gallon a minute flow, and they could not confirm if the faucet has an aerator with a flow of 2.2 gallons a minute.

An inspection of a home on Northeast 10th Place says the unit was missing a smoke detector and that electrical wiring was not property installed and maintained in the kitchen in a safe manner.

A 75-year old retiree who owns nine rental houses in Gainesville, said two of his homes have been inspected, and he said the hassle has made him decide to sell the other seven.

The landlord said he didn’t want to be named out of concern the inspectors might come down harder on him.

Even after he and his wife did some of the work to address the violations, he still ended up shelling out several thousand dollars for insulation, a new toilet, door repair, painting, and putting up new wood on the outside of the home. He said he even was ordered to have leaves blown off the roof.

And he said when the inspector came for a follow-up, he found more violations.

“They came out with a huge list of (violations),” he said.

This article originally appeared on The Gainesville Sun: Landlords up in arms over Gainesville's wide-sweeping rental inspection program