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January 26, 2011

Burlington Offers "Amnesty" For Unregistered Landlords

DSC08927 Attention Burlington landlords: If you've got a rental apartment that you haven't registered with city hall, now's the time to do it.

In an effort to make sure Queen City housing stock is up to code, the city is offering an "amnesty" period for landlords to declare their unregistered rentals and get them inspected without incurring the normal penalties — up to $500 in fines and up to 30 days (!) in jail.

At the request of the Code Enforcement Office, the Burlington City Council passed a resolution on Monday approving the amnesty period, from February 1 to March 31, 2011. Landlords will still have to pay the annual registration fees — $50 for owner-occupied duplexes and $75 per unit for all other rentals — but not retroactive sanctions that might be due.

The resolution was co-sponsored by Councilors Joan Shannon (D-5) and Emma Mulvaney-Stanak (P-3).

At a press conference Wednesday, Burlington Code Enforcement Director Bill Ward (pictured) and several code inspectors detailed the "free pass" program and displayed a set of big, glossy photographs showing some of the code violations discovered during routine housing inspections (slide show below).

"The idea is not to embarrass people," Ward said, noting the properties were not identified, "but to point out that this is a problem."

The rental inspection program, launched in 1993 and updated in 2000, requires all landlords to declare rental properties annually and pay the associated fees, and to submit to inspections once every two or three years to ensure units meet the city's minimum standards of habitability. Ward said there are currently 9238 rental units in the city registry and he could only guess about how many unregistered dwellings Burlington has.

"As Donald Rumsfeld would say, it's not knowable," Ward said. "I'm estimating there's probably 1 percent, and that's about 100 rentals that are unregistered in the city of Burlington."

Ward said city inspectors discover unregistered units sometimes by responding to tenant complaints. He suspects some landlords are dodging the registration requirement while others are simply unaware of it.  Sometimes, he said, a multi-unit property changes hands and the new owners aren't aware of the rule.

City ordinance gives Ward's office the power to pursue retroactive penalties going back three years on landlords who don't declare units or don't pay the fees. That can include fines of $200 to $500 and even criminal penalties punishable by up to 30 days in jail.

City attorney Gene Bergman, the former code enforcement director, told Seven Days the city occasionally pursues fines against unregistered landlords in Chittenden Superior Court but never jail time. He couldn't supply figures detailing how many landlords the city prosecutes.

Ward said the amnesty is not about collecting more money, pointing out that 100 or so units at $75 a pop would only net an additional $7500 for city coffers. Rather, he said, it's about making sure all units are inspected and up to code.

Landlords with questions can call the Code Enforcement Office main number: 802-863-0442.

Below are photos of housing code violations distributed by the Code Enforcement Office. Most violations should be fairly evident. i.e. exposed wiring, broken faucets, damaged floor and ceiling tiles. In the first photo, the tenant had the disco ball plugged into a hardwired smoke detector, which meant the detector wasn't working. Can you say, "Disco Inferno?"

That Ward's a compelling fellow, I rather like the cut of his jib.

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