Home Waynesboro: City manager buries denial of rental inspection program

Waynesboro: City manager buries denial of rental inspection program

Crystal Graham
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A city resident was furious with Waynesboro City Manager Mike Hamp Monday night for giving City Council his thoughts on a much-discussed rental inspection program in the city as part of his comments at the conclusion of a regular meeting instead of including it on the official agenda.

Sharon VanName, who is running a write-in campaign for Headwaters Soil and Water Director, spoke in the citizen comment period and said she thought it was “inappropriate and disrespectful” for the city manager to address the program in the manner he did.

“There was no opportunity for Virginia Organizing or anyone else to know that this was going to be discussed tonight,” she said in the public comment period. “I think that’s wrong and very disrespectful to the people who put so much time and effort into it.”

Virginia Organizing has been pushing for a rental inspection program in Waynesboro for some time. At Monday night’s City Council meeting, Hamp provided Council with reasons for not recommending the program in the city’s budget. This followed updates from the city manager related to road closures planned for the fall and holiday seasons as well as Walk to School Week at a time in the meeting that is usually reserved for quick items of this nature.

Hamp said tenants can currently file a property maintenance complaint with the building and inspection department.

He said that tenants may also seek a judicial remedy through the Virginia Landlord Tenants Act for maintenance and other issues not resolved through the building inspection department.

According to Hamp, there was an average of 23 rental inspections per year from 2019 to 2022.

Hamp said he “would not recommend at this time undertaking the new program with current staffing levels.”

Hamp said the city has one full-time and one part-time employee providing property maintenance inspections which also include nuisance and inoperable vehicle complaints.

“We’ve looked at similarly sized communities and how they move operate programs,” Hamp told City Council.

He said the City of Winchester, larger than Waynesboro, has five inspectors who perform property maintenance inspections.

Another reason for not including the program in the budget, Hamp said, was the fact that the housing market, including rental homes and apartments, is currently tight with demand significantly outpacing supply, resulting in increased purchase prices and rents.

“The introduction of a rental inspection program, while improving quality, will likely result in even higher purchase prices and rents,” Hamp said.

Hamp said that while the comprehensive plan for the city does reference a rental inspection program, he said that plan was adopted prior to the COVID pandemic, and it did not create a time that would be conducive to initiating the program.

“Typically, rental inspections are common in larger municipalities, though not exclusively, so Colonial Heights … with a population of 18,200 has a rental inspection program as does Hopewell Virginia – population 23,100. Medium-sized cities larger than Waynesboro with rental inspection programs include Winchester – population 28,000, and Petersburg – population 33,000,” Hamp said.

Hamp advised Council that a rental inspection program would include apartments as well as rental single-family dwellings. Hamp said that the program would allow not more than 10 percent of the units to be inspected through the program, meaning that if you had a rental complex of 50 units, through the program, the City would only be able to assess five of those 50 units.

“I think it’s important to keep in mind perspective of the impact that the program would have,” Hamp said. “I would note that through our budget process, in which we try to one assess satisfaction with service levels and program levels, and to identify priority for upcoming budget year, neither the city manager or his staff, nor the City Council identified the program as a budget priority.

“I would note as well, as I did earlier, that there are existing programmatic and judicial remedy for standard conditions and concerns. I would say, admittedly, inspection programs do mitigate potentially adversarial relationships between tenants and landlords, at least for those units that are subject to the inspection,” Hamp said. “The housing market currently is such that I think any elected body and our staff ought to be careful about enacting programs that would adversely impact price.”

Waynesboro City Council members Terry Short and Kenneth Lee responded to Hamp’s comments to say that they disagreed with the City Manager’s assessment that a rental inspection program was not a priority.

Short said it was among his top three priorities. Short also questioned some of the assumptions made by Hamp related to higher rent prices if a program was enacted in Waynesboro.

“You have some properties in the city that are long overdue for some care and attention,” Short said. “I am concerned about spot properties across the city that we allow conditions to deteriorate, which then undermine the neighboring valuations of properties and undermine the valuations of entire neighborhoods. And there are real consequences to that as well.”

Vice Mayor Jim Wood said he doesn’t think 23 calls a year justify the additional costs that would be incurred for the implementation of the program.

“You don’t want to see people living in squalor. You don’t want to see people living in places that are not habitable. But also, you know, to add every penny we add to the tax rate to provide programs like that, can also counterbalance and put other people in a worse position in their life,” Wood said.

Short said the most vulnerable people in the city are also the least likely to reach out for help. He said he didn’t think that the number 23 should be an indication of whether or not the city has a problem.

Short said he would like City Council to discuss the matter further at a retreat and prioritize the program. He said the fact that Winchester started the program small and has grown to a department with multiple inspectors speaks volumes as far as the success of the program.

“I ride my bike with my kids all over the city. I drive around to every single neighborhood across the city. I do it every single week,” Short said. “And I can tell you that there are houses, housing conditions, and multi-dwelling units that need attention.”

Crystal Graham

Crystal Graham

Crystal Abbe Graham is the regional editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1999 graduate of Virginia Tech, she has worked for nearly 25 years as a reporter and editor for several Virginia publications, written a book, and garnered more than a dozen Virginia Press Association awards for writing and graphic design. She was the co-host of "Viewpoints," a weekly TV news show, and co-host of Virginia Tonight, a nightly TV news show. Her work on "Virginia Tonight" earned her a national Telly award for excellence in television.