Owners of Pearl’s multi-family rental complexes and mobile home parks have joined to fight a city mandate requiring rental property owners to install interior sprinklers in each rental unit and build storm shelters to accommodate each resident.
Representatives of the owners say they face millions of dollars in retrofitting costs and displacement of tenants to meet the sprinkler mandate. Equally high costs accompany building shelters Pearl says must be strong enough to withstand an F-2 tornado. Some properties, especially mobile home parks, lack land on which to put the shelters, representatives say.
The ordinance effects more than 2,000 rental units, including single-family homes and condominiums whose owners rent them out. The City Council passed the ordinance on June 27, 2013 on a 5-0 vote but waited until Sept. 17 to publish the required legal notice. An amendment to the Rental Housing Code, the ordinance is effective Oct. 17.
The legal notice incorrectly stated ordinance passage occurred on June 27, 2014. City attorney James Bobo said in an email Monday that the error “should no impact the effective date” of the ordinance.
The apartment owners and the head of the Mississippi Home Builders Association had been negotiating with city officials in hopes of getting the interior sprinkler and shelter mandates dropped. As recently as the end of last week, MHBA President Marty Milstead thought a compromise of some sort could be made. “We’re still talking this through,” he said last Friday.
“The folks we represent which are the multi-family owners are onboard with trying to help Pearl improve its rental stock but not put them out of business or tenants out on the street.”
The storm shelter requirement is “a huge one” that he has been unable to find common ground on with the City, Milstead said. “How do you do that when you have existing structures. It seems unreasonable.”
The sprinkler retrofits also involve a big expense, in addition to lost rents as tenants are forced out of their units, according to Milstead.
“We’re talking about occupied units that you are going in and gutting,” he said.
Absent a concession on the sprinklers and shelters, “The only option you have is to litigate,” Milstead said.
Jackson attorney Steve Smith took steps in that direction last Friday with the filing of a notice of appeal with the Rankin County Circuit Court. The next step is a “Bill of Exceptions,” which is an official challenge to the ordinance and will be ruled on by a circuit judge.
Smith estimates he represents the owners of 1,500 to 2,000 Pearl rental units, including four or five large complexes as well as a handful of mobile home parks and small rental units.
Apartment owners must apply for rental permits annually. Smith said he expects those not meeting the new codes won’t receive permits.
“It is unlawful and beyond the power of the board to do this,” Smith said. “We think it is arbitrary and capricious and unlawful under both the state and federal constitutions.”
While the ordinance notes in generalities the public safety benefits, it lacks data or documentation to support perceived benefits, according to Smith.
City Attorney Bobo did not return phone calls last week and this week seeking comment.
Like Milstead, Smith said he has negotiated with city officials in hopes of a compromise. But the published ordinance is identical to the one adopted in June 2013, he said.
“This is pretty onerous, to say the least,” Smith said, estimating the cost at hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars “per property.”
“It’s one thing for municipalities and counties to adopt codes, but it is a horse of a different color to come back after the fact and require people to adhere to a building code that wasn’t in force” at the time of construction, he added.
Both Smith and Milstead say they suspect that Pearl is seeking the same outcome as Ridgeland in pushing out renters.
Ridgeland has adopted a measure to classify all muli-unit rental complexes as non-conforming. Some owners of Ridgeland apartment complexes face forced demolition of their complexes while others could be forced to demolish units to meet new building density rules.
Lawyers for Bay Meadows Apartments have sued to prevent demolition of the complex and charge Ridgeland’s goal is to rid the city of Hispanics and African-Americans.
Ultimately, Ridgeland and Pearl appear to want renters removed from their city limits, Smith and Milstead say.
“It looks that way,” Smith said.
“I don’t see how you can take it any other way,” Milstead said.
He added, though, that he still has a measure of belief Pearl is “trying to have some teeth” to get upgrades of rental complexes that don’t include the sprinklers and shelters.
Ridgeland, on the other hand, “is clearly trying to have a vehicle to close apartments and complexes,” he said.
The City of Ridgeland’s action is drawing attention nationwide, including large concern from the National Association of Home Builders, according to Milstead.
One worry locally is that the movement against multi-family housing will spread to other communities in Metro Jackson as well as elsewhere in Mississippi, Milstead said.
“We are always concerned about precedents being set with ordinances or laws.”