Black Mountain revises its minimum housing code

Fred McCormick

Renters in Black Mountain will have more support from the town following the board of aldermen’s unanimous vote to revise the town’s minimum housing code.

Planning director Josh Harrold presented the amendment to the board at a public hearing held during the May meeting last week. The amendment sets minimum standards of fitness for dwellings and dwelling units.

The revisions were designed to provide “protection for tenants” in Black Mountain, Harrold said. The changes align the town’s rental housing standards with those of the state and Buncombe County.

“In our comprehensive plan update, there is a high priority in looking at our minimum housing code and making sure we are enforcing it,” Harrold said.

The five-person housing commission began discussing revisions in August 2013 and submitted changes to the planning board for review the following November. Concerns from local landlords prompted the planning board to send the proposed changes back to the housing commission.

The planning board voted to recommend the proposed changes in March 2015.

The amended version of the ordinance presented to aldermen provides detailed minimum standards for landlords in seven categories: street address, light and ventilation, electrical systems, exterior and interior, space requirements, heating systems and chimneys.

“This came directly out of a Buncombe County rental housing ordinance that was passed in 1998,” Harrold told the board. “It’s pretty much verbatim.”

Landlords are now required by the town to provide heating systems capable of safely heating all rooms and bathrooms in dwellings to a temperature of 68 degrees Fahrenheit at a distance of 3 feet above floor level when outdoor temperatures reach as low as 20 degrees. That requirement mirrors the state’s general statute.

Changes in the way the code is enforced were also included in the amendment. The previous version required proof of written communication from tenant to property owner when requesting repairs. The new text allows those requests to be made through landlords or agents as well.

Under the previous regulations, the town’s building inspector was permitted to inspect rental units only if a complaint was made. Language was added to the code that empowers the inspection department to initiate inspections if the landlord has a history of violations, the department has actual knowledge of unsafe conditions or violations are visible from outside of the property.

Owner of one of the largest property management companies in the Swannanoa Valley, Chip Craig does not see his business being adversely affected by the amendment. His company, Greybeard Realty, maintains rental units well above the minimum code, he said.

“We do a fire safety inspection every year, and we fix anything that is not working,” he said. “We do not manage homes for owners that are not willing to bring conditions up to what we feel is a satisfactory level.”

Craig believes the initial impact of the revised code will be insignificant. He is concerned, however, with how the new standards will be viewed by town staff over time.

“I know (town building inspector) Dan Cordell. And I trust Dan’s interpretation with something like this,” Craig said. “But you get somebody one day and are they going to interpret things the same way? I don’t know.”

From his perspective, Cordell believes that the amendments to the code will make it easier for future building inspectors.

“During the discussions that we’ve been having for the last year or so, we set out specifically to make the enforcement easily understood,” he said. “The new ordinance, as it’s written, makes it a lot easier for anybody that would follow me.”

Cordell points out that there are plenty of good landlords in Black Mountain. But the standards set forth by the new code will provide a clearer understanding for all parties when it comes to rental units.

“This actually gives you some policies on how to make the conditions better that may be lacking,” he said. “It makes it easier on everybody, actually.”