In Kalamazoo, Many Rentals, Few Inspectors

Nov 9, 2014

Credit Sehvilla Mann / WMUK

Jeremy Cole walks through the second floor of a rental house he owns in Kalamazoo.

He’s showing city housing inspector Tina Perry that the smoke detectors work. “I’ll just hit the three in the bedrooms,” he says, pressing each one so it beeps.

No one lives in the house right now. But Cole says the last tenants trashed it. They broke the windows – repeatedly – so Cole replaced them with Plexiglas. The city did not approve that when it first inspected the house a month and a half ago. But today when Perry knocks on a window, she likes what she hears.

“We got glass,” she says.

Rental properties make up more than half of Kalamazoo’s housing. In theory, the city has certified each one as a “safe and sanitary” place to live.

But in practice, not every rental unit that’s supposed to have a permit has one. And if you’ve got a rental property that you need certified, you might have to wait a while. That’s largely because the city doesn’t have the inspection staff it once had.

Cole is the president of the Kalamazoo Area Rental Housing Association. He says he hears many complaints from members about how long it takes to get a rental house certified in Kalamazoo.

“We like to get our certification before we put a new tenant in. So with - two months out, that’s kind of, somebody else has to cover that cost or share that cost and so in turn it raises rents in the city,” he says.

The housing department tells landlords to expect at a two-to-three-month wait for an inspector to look at a property.

Cole says he’d like to see the city issue longer-term permits. Currently the city doesn’t offer any that are valid for longer than 40 months, and it only issues those ones to landlords who meet certain standards.

But Cole also thinks the city needs more inspectors. It used to employ as many as nine – back in the early 2000s.

“Probably by 2003, 2004 we were down to eight,” says Housing Inspection Supervisor Debra Miller.

“We lost another one through retirement, and then we had the early retirement in I think, beginning of 2011, 2012, where we are now down to four,” she says.

That’s four inspectors for about 16,000 units. By comparison, Battle Creek has two more inspectors than Kalamazoo and only about 9,000 rentals. Miller says only one of Kalamazoo’s seasoned inspectors stayed through the early retirement program. And that means things slowed down.

“We’re just getting to the point now where people have got - the new folks here have got a couple years under their belt - you know, really have a good sense of what the program’s all about,” she says.

Landlords dislike the longer wait times. But for the city, there’s another problem. That’s the number of rentals whose certificates have lapsed. Between the early 2000s and the Great Recession, the rate dipped as low as ten percent. But Miller says when the housing market crashed, even some “good landlords” struggled to keep up.

“We had people losing large numbers of properties to either foreclosure or tax foreclosure,” she says.

Not surprisingly, many fell behind on inspections. And then the city began to lose staff. Currently, one in five Kalamazoo rentals lacks a valid certificate.

Miller says, given the upheaval of the past few years, she’s glad the rate isn’t higher. But she would like to see certifications rise back up to 90 percent. She says that’s about as close to the ideal as the city can move on its own.

“Even when we were at 90 percent, I think what I came to realize is, it’s not all on us. The property owner does have a responsibility to be present and want to have that inspection. And so when we have to spend any time chasing people down, we’re not at a hundred percent,” she says.

Back at the rental house, Perry and Cole click through the settings on a three-way switch as the inspection wraps up.

Perry says the property is close to certification – but she’ll be back at least one more time.

“You’ve got a little bit of cleaning to do, a little bit of finishing touches to get it ready,” she says to Cole.

Perry was the city’s first new hire after the early retirement program. She says she and her colleagues keep busy.

“Our schedules are booking way out. However, we’re efficient, too. The more efficient you can become, the quicker you get it done, and whenever you can schedule in a four o’clock special one and finish it up and get it completed properly, then that’s another one off your plate,” she says.

Perry says she’s not sure the city needs a staff of nine inspectors. But she says it could use "a couple” more. And it looks like the staff will increase by at least one person. Miller says the city has just granted the housing department permission to hire a fifth inspector.