Inspection plan considered

Gretna eyes strategy to reduce blight

Gretna officials are looking to import a Midwestern model for dealing with blighted rental property by creating a citywide rental inspection program, but the new guidelines could mean new fees for property owners and possibly tenants.

Mayor Ronnie Harris and Gretna City Council members are hashing out the final details behind the scenes for a rental inspection program that Harris says would be novel in the state. Based on common practices in the Midwest, the program would require the registration and inspection of every rental property in Gretna to monitor the maintenance of those units.

Harris was scheduled to introduce the ordinance for the new program this month but decided to delay things while some tweaking was completed.

Harris and City Prosecutor W.J. LeBlanc have been putting together the program for about six to nine months, ever since Harris heard about the concept at a National League of Cities conference, the mayor said.

The basic premise is that the city is going to establish a baseline for the maintenance of all rental property in Gretna, and then conduct regular inspections to ensure that property owners are complying.

“This is kind of an accepted practice in the Midwest. I believe it would be a new thing in Louisiana,” the mayor said. “It was kind of a novel idea for us.”

Under the rules, rental property owners would pay a $15 annual registration fee for every unit they own and then pay a $60 inspection fee per unit every three years or when complaints are reported. Property owners would have to repair violations, and if they fail to do so, they could face additional inspection fees or citations in city court, Harris said.

City code inspectors also would be able to write citations for tenants who cause problems in units, although that would be far less common.

Harris said the program would help the city establish more control over its plentiful rental properties. According to census data, roughly 52 percent of Gretna’s homes are rented, which is significantly higher than places such as Marrero, Harvey, Westwego, Metairie and Kenner.

Harris, who owns a rental property, said city officials have seen instances where property owners have failed to maintain their properties in a safe manner, and this will give the city a way to deal with those issues.

“I think overall it’s going to upgrade the level of housing in Gretna,” Harris said.

The program already has received support from many city officials including Police Chief Arthur Lawson, who calls it a “shame” how some property owners treat tenants. He said the quality of life issues created by those properties contribute to crime.

“Sometimes it’s really a shame the conditions people are forced to live in. Sometimes it’s almost a crime,” Lawson said.

Council members Wayne Rau, Belinda Constant and Vincent Cox III all expressed support for the program, noting that it will establish consistency in the city’s housing market.

Constant said that after Hurricane Katrina, many property owners received insurance settlements but refused to use that money to make improvements, even as they continued to charge premium rents.

Cox said he’s “100 percent” in support of the program, although he expressed some reservations about the fees being discussed.

Harris said those fees are needed to pay for the cost of hiring two or three new code inspectors to handle the increased workload that the inspections will create. The city is providing a service and not just collecting fees to generate revenue, Harris noted.

“If we just took the money and did nothing, I think (complainers) would have some validity,” he said.

Gretna’s program will be modeled after a similar program in Zeeland, Mich. Tim Maday, who manages the program there, said his city started inspections in 2007, but some of the surrounding municipalities had been doing inspections for three decades.

Zeeland experienced minimal pushback from property owners when it began the program because most of them were accustomed to similar rules in other areas.

However, to limit angst, the city’s initial inspections only focused on clear “life safety” violations, a strategy Gretna also plans to follow. That includes blatantly hazardous violations.

In subsequent years, Zeeland inspectors would look for cracked door jambs, peeling paint and other cosmetic violations, Maday said.

“People at least had a basic understanding of what the program is all about,” Maday said. “We feel that it really has improved our housing stock.”

Typically, violations are directed at property owners, but there are instances when tenants are notified of problems dealing with trash inside residences or other unsafe practices.

In Zeeland, which only has about 500 rental units, the $60 fee includes an initial inspection and reinspection, but any subsequent inspections cost $100.