The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Saturday April 1st

Licensing Can Protect Area Renters

Some are fortunate enough to live in the Soviet-style high rises of Hinton James Residence Hall.

Many choose to venture out into Chapel Hill and Carrboro. They either complain about the inflated rent of area apartments or are forced to cram five people into a two-bedroom shanty to keep costs low.

The college years are not ones of luxury for most students.

But some are forced to live in unsanitary or unsafe conditions with little help from their landlords.

That's where a proposed rental licensing program comes in.

The purpose of the licensing program is to get landlords to buy a rental license for each of their rentals and fill out an application that has contact data for them -- in case the renters need to get in touch with them.

All of that information is compiled into a database that would become public record.

The program should increase landlord accountability, ensure building codes are up-to-date and protect renters from grossly negligent landlords.

Of course, some landlords have protested the licensing program.

As Chapel Hill Town Council member Pat Evans said Monday night, "(Property owners) feel that the rental licensing would impact them in deciding not to register with the database or stop renting. They're worried students may just log online to all that data and see who has the most complaints."

Hmmm ... Being able to see a landlord's track record before signing a binding lease to rent at ridiculous rates?

I fail to see the negative there.

Local landlords are in the perfect rental market. There is a constant demand for off-campus housing.

In fact, because the University is taking on a greater number of students in the years to come, the demand will increase even more.

That surplus of demand allows landlords to charge higher and higher rents.

And because it is a seller's market, landlords don't have as much incentive to maintain their properties in terms of maintenance and services.

Hell, some renters don't even know where their landlord lives.

There's huge profits to be had in renting property in Chapel Hill. Because tenants pay so dearly, they at least deserve basic services from their landlord without having to hire a private investigator to find them.

Consumers have a right to know this information. It's the only way that they can make an informed decision before they put their name on the dotted line and get entangled in a long-term lease.

Oftentimes, students have little recourse if they get stuck with a slumlord. The housing crunch in this area means apartments are scarce.

And it can be a legal hassle to try to opt out of a lease once it has already been signed. So students who are afraid of getting evicted will usually just put up with unsavory conditions.

"My apartment was roach-infested, I could barely use my commode, and my kitchen sink stayed stopped up for two months," said renter Kara Baldwin. "You don't want to put up a resistance because you're afraid you might get put out."

But while the rental licensing proposal is slowly going through the wheels of local governance (the town established a rental licensing task force in June 2000, and a finalized proposal was sent to the Town Council on March 26, 2001), the program's beneficiaries are usually thought to primarily be students.

But this licensing program would protect all renters. Though the lion's share of them are students, there are also other groups that are forced to rent in Chapel Hill. They tend to be lower-income workers.

Chapel Hill trumpets affordable housing every time an election crops up. Rental licensing should be a part of any strategy to help low-income people get clean, safe housing in this area.

Yeah, buyers need to beware.

But the Town Council shouldn't aid slumlords in pulling the wool over renters' eyes.

Columnist Jonathan Chaney can be reached at jhchaney@email.unc.edu.

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