Monday, August 5, 2013

Chris Chittum Agrees To Test Tenant Accountability With An REI of Virginia Member


Photo by www.roanokefreepress.com
We had a nice meeting with Chris Chittum. Props to Chris! He showed up at our meeting by himself! That's a first for any government employee. It seems that they more often like to have a support team with them.

Chris turned out to be a pretty good guy. He was firm in his beliefs but open minded and willing to give new ideas a try.

The main issues that  our members had related to tenant accountability. Chris would like to do a test case with one of our members when a tenant has an outdoor storage zoning issue.

He requests that the case be a single family house so there is no question on who owns the property. And that you have a lease and ideally photos or video of the outside of the property prior to the tenant moving in.

See below Chris's detailed response to our meeting. If you have an outdoor storage issue in the future, please let me know so I can put you in contact with Chris:

 Dallas,

Thank you for your invitation to speak at REI's meeting earlier this week.
As I expected, there was a spirited discussion and I think that the result
was at least more mutual understanding, if not agreement.   I appreciate
that the discussion was civil.  Most discussion focused on citing the
tenant rather than property owner.  On this issue, there are two questions.
First, CAN we legally cite the tenant?  Second, if we can, then SHOULD we?

On the "can we" question, of the four major codes enforced, three legally
require us to cite the owner with few exceptions.

---The outcome of a weed/trash violation is often abatement by the city and
billing for these services.  Of course if the bill is not paid, a lien goes
on the property.  It would not be legal, nor ethical, to place a lien on a
property without going through due process with the owner.  Therefore,
weed/trash violations are not a candidate for citing the tenant.

---The outcome of an inoperative motor vehicle violation is towing the
vehicle.  In rare cases when the vehicle cannot be accessed by the towing
company, the owner summonsed to court.   It really does not matter two whom
the vehicle belongs, but as legal due process, we must notify the property
owner.  There is no flexibility.

----The Building Maintenance Code assigns responsibility to the owner or
the person responsible for maintenance.  This almost always means the
owner.  There are some exceptions related to unsanitary conditions inside
the unit where we can and have gone after the tenant to compel compliance.

----Roanoke's Zoning Ordinance, however, allows us to hold pretty much
anyone associated with the property accountable:


    (1) Violating, causing, or permitting the violation of, or failure to
comply with any of the requirements of, this chapter, including violations
of any conditions established in connection with grants of variances,
conditional rezonings, special exceptions, or the issuance of zoning
permits or development plan approval, by any person, firm, or corporation,
whether as principal, agent, owner, lessee, employee, or other similar
position.....


Virginia Code Section 15.2-2286 appears silent on specifying owner or
tenant in enforcement; however Virginia Code Sec. 15.2-2311 requires us to
give notice to the owner in order to advise the owner of their right of
appeal.  (See VaCode Section 15.2-2311)

On the "should we" question, there are situations where everyone involved
knows that the tenant has caused the violation.   We look at each case as
having the potential to end up in General District Court.  Accordingly, we
have to document everything in writing and must be able to assign legal
responsibility appropriately.  I am hearing this as the very point you and
other REI members are making, but as we have communicated, holding the
tenant responsible is not very easy and impossible in some cases.

I have spoken to Dan Webb and others about the potential of citing tenants
in very limited situations as a test case.  As I said, I am most interested
in our team's ability to be effective in getting rid of violations.  I am
willing to consider or test ideas that might help improve.   Our zoning
ordinance is really the only one that gives us the flexibility to cite who
we think is responsible for causing the violation.    Zoning violations
(commonly outdoor storage) are the mostly likely candidate for a type of
test case.

We've identified several issues with citing the tenant and, specifically,
several conditions that need to exist for a successful test case.  We would
need cooperation from the property owner to be successful.

1.  The property would need to be a single-family dwelling so there is no
doubt which tenant caused the violation.  This condition would ensure that
the tenant cannot point the finger at another tenant of the property.

2.  The owner or manager would need to have some documentation such as a
move-in checklist, preferably including photos, that show the violation did
not exist on the property when the tenant took possession (or after the
tenant took possession, but before the violation occurred).  We are
thinking that the owner or manager would need to come to court as a witness
to present this evidence and testimony.  This documentation and testimony
would prevent the tenant from simply claiming the violation existed before
they moved in.

3.  We must be able to find the tenant who caused the violation.  The test
case should be one where the same tenant still has possession of the
property.

4.  We need the property owner to provide us with a copy of the lease
showing the current tenant has sole leasehold interest in the property.

5.  When a violation is observed, we do not know - at least initially - who
the tenant is, so we would still need to give some sort of initial notice
to the property owner.  We would need to have a process where the owner
would certify us that he/she believes that the tenant is responsible for
the violation, that the above conditions exist, and that the owner will
provide the documentation noted above.   This is a step that would add
additional time to the process;  we need prompt response from the owner
here.

I am by nature inquisitive and truly interested in finding out if this idea
will prove effective.  We plan to pursue this idea in good faith to see if
it will work.  We have already started mapping out the chain of events that
need to occur and will need to do a little more work to get a solid process
together.  We have not yet discussed this idea with the Commonwealth
Attorney's Office, so there may be other issues that we need to work
through.  Once we have the process mapped out, we will then need to find
the ideal test case.  I would prefer that the test case be on property of
one of your members who was privy to the discussion and therefore
understands what we're doing and why we're doing it.

That's all for now.

Regards,

Chris



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