Monday, August 5, 2013

No Storming the Castle in Richardson

King Arthur: If you will not show us the Grail, we shall take your castle by force!

French Soldier: You don't frighten us, English pig-dogs! Go and boil your bottoms, son of a silly person! Ah blow my nose at you, so-called "Arthur Keeeng"! You and all your silly English Knnnnnnnn-ighuts!!!
If you substitute a Richardson rental house inspector for King Arthur and a give-me-liberty-or-give-me-death type renter for the French soldier, you'd have pretty much the scene that played out in the courts and the Richardson city council recently.

After the jump, the city council's retreat.

During a Richardson City Council work session the council reviewed the city's rental registration and inspection program and unanimously expressed their desire to have city staff draw up amendments to relax the ordinance.

Specifically, the city will conduct regular mandatory exterior inspections and offer to conduct a voluntary interior inspection as well. The city will no longer conduct interior inspections without the consent of the tenant unless the exterior inspection reveals violations that give the city probable cause to conduct an interior inspection as well.

What is the practical effect of this change? Probably none. Most renters, if they care about their health and safety, welcome an independent inspection of the house they are going to be spending the majority of their hours in. (Most homeowners, too, for that matter. I had someone install a water heater in my house. I welcomed a city inspector into my house to check that the installation was done properly.) So, most landlords and renters will continue to abide by the policy as before.

But, let's face it. There are some who have great antipathy towards "the government." So much so that they will refuse an offer that's in their own interest. If a renter declines a free inspection of the house he or she is planning to spend an awful lot of time in, and a health or safety violation exists, it's his life at risk (and possibly his children, which would be a tragedy -- that's my only hesitation in supporting this change). So be it. Don't force it. There is no reasoning with an empty-headed animal food-trough wiper whose mother was a hamster and father smelt of elderberries!

To read my earlier thoughts on this subject, read Of Slumlords and Castles.


David said...

Here’s the thing, Mr. Steeger, if the inspections were such a grand idea, then why were they focused exclusively on rental properties? Why wasn’t this lifesaving service imposed on owner-occupants, too?

I think there tend to be three categories of thought on these types of issues: 1. People like yourself who think whatever rules and regulations the government comes up with spring from a warm and fuzzy place and we should all be thankful for this benevolent oversight. 2. The big majority, who are just numb to the incursions on their lives and rights by government at all levels or just plain disinterested in most things. 3. And then there are people like myself and my tenants, who really just want to be left alone, for the most part, and who are quite capable of looking out for themselves without the hand-holding of the government.

The problem is that once you give government a power than it doesn’t need to have, it starts to view the average, law-abiding citizen as someone to be controlled and caught. Government doesn’t like to be resisted.

That’s what we found in our encounter with the city code staff and the prosecution and municipal court. The city didn’t want to be resisted, so it ignored its own law and the law of the land to prosecute landlords when their tenants expressed their constitutional right against unwarranted entry by a government inspector. Then the prosecutor and the court, other arms of the government, perverted justice by not allowing the jury to see evidence favorable to the landlord (the inspection provision of the ordinance, for instance.)

I don’t think you’d feel such affection for the government if you had experienced this.

We don’t think there should be no rules, just ones we can all agree make sense and which are consistent and applied to everyone. There was no factual or data basis for making rental properties a focus of code enforcement, just an overreaction to complaints about unkempt yards and excessive on-street parking. As an investor, I’ve visited hundreds of distressed properties over the past several years, and they were just as likely to be owner-occupied as to be rental properties.

As to your point about water heaters, did you not have a plumber install yours? If so, do you really think a city inspector, who’s generally not an expert in any phase of the building trades, such as plumbing, electrical, etc, knows more than your plumber? I’ve witnessed a couple of the city inspections of rental properties; they are cursory in the extreme, while also being intrusive. A key element is pressing the buttons on the smoke alarms and looking in kitchen and bathroom cabinets and behind shower curtains (when they can’t find any interior violations, they cite landlords for something like an unpainted former doggy door with new wood over it)– not sure what health and safety violation they expect to find in those areas.

In case you didn’t know, landlords in Texas are governed by the Texas Property Code, which means we are obligated by law to provide a safe and healthy home for our tenants, not to mention the extraordinary liability we face if a tenant suffers an injury in our property. The city inspectors aren’t certifying the properties safe; they’re just having a look around and leaving landlords with the same liability and responsibility they had before

So, we endorse government that is limited to those inarguable rules that prevent chaos and criminality, but we oppose expansionist government that views ordinary citizens as either helpless or unscrupulous.

Mark Steger said...

"David," thanks for your lengthy response. We have a requirement here that comments that don't include a full name (first names alone are not enough) are subject to deletion. (And by "we" have a requirement, I mean, of course, me.)

Some quick responses of my own:

I would like it if the city offered free voluntary interior inspections to all residents, not just renters.

I don't claim a city inspector knows more about water heaters than the plumber who installed mine. I don't have personal knowledge of the plumber who did my work, but even if I did have the utmost confidence in him, I would still welcome a second pair of eyes inspecting the work, just in case.

You identified three kinds of people. I don't fit any. And I suspect most people don't, either.

David said...

"I would like it if the city offered free voluntary interior inspections to all residents, not just renters."

Did you miss the point about the inspections of rental properties NOT being voluntary? That was the entire point, that the city was attempting to force its way into the homes of tenants who specifically said no, in violation of its own ordinance. And it was supported in this unlawful action by the local prosecutor and court, who showed utter disdain for justice by preventing the jury from seeing the rental ordinance in the landlord trials.

I'm not aware of any landlord in Richardson or anywhere else who objected to voluntary inspections, just the coercive ones.

Or are you advocating one rule (involuntary inspections) for tenants and another rule (voluntary inspections) for everyone else? Our tenants don't want to be viewed as a lesser class of residents subject to greater scrutiny.

David Farnham

Mark Steger said...

No, David Farnham, I didn't miss the point.

Sassy Texan said...


You are welcome to have your doors open to anyone and everyone you wish. It becomes problematic when you wish to open doors of homes you have no interest in.

You make an over broad assumption that most people are "ok" with this. I think this was tried several years ago when the City offered a FREE inspection to elderly residents. That led to some large discord when the free inspections led to some FORCED fines. Bullies tend to break rapport.

If you go back and look at the list of allegations that have been created so far, more are esthetics than safety concerns. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and the pocket book of the owner. In no way is it a governmental oversight issue.

The most significant insight with this is what David pointed out above, and that is The Texas Property Code. That comes under the heading of statute and an ordinance cannot usurp statutes. Though Richardson has been bold in attempting to do that many, many times.

Wendy Moore was well within her rights to fight the wrongful conviction and I hope she moves forward with it. Standard practices state that the conviction has to clearly meet 2 standards. One is proving a violation and secondly did the City have jurisdiction to prosecute? It appears the City's withdrawal indicates there might be a problem in this area.

So to save face, we get to create a city practice of Peeping Toms with vivid imaginations of what might be going on in a home. How lovely. Why is the true intention never disclosed in the activity? In this case, it is because the City really cannot do what it's intention is really all about.

You can have all the opinions on this topic you want, but the law is the law until someone changes it. And that makes opinions irrelevant. Kind of reminds me of the direct election drama. It is unfortunate to constantly have to force our local Representatives/City staff to follow the law.

Cheri Duncan-Hubert

Mark Steger said...

Cheri, thanks for your response. In this post, I sidestepped discussing past enforcement of the ordinance or the resulting legal case. The legal case has been dismissed. The ordinance is in the process of being relaxed. My focus was on the changes we're likely to see. To repeat, I support those changes.

Sassy Texan said...


"In context" is a beautiful thing. It compels understanding and that is sometimes impossible without it. So all the info you omitted seemed relative in my post.

With all due respect, I do not think the case is closed, but is pending review of an additional filing. It is true the City has withdrawn the municipal verdict. Time ticks on.

I was very clear your opinion is in favor of inspections. Opinions are like belly buttons..... But I digress. I do find it amusing you condone the "Peeping Tom" behaviour as deemed appropriate by the Council in it's revisions. I see you in a different light, now! ha

Cheri Duncan-Hubert