The Eastside Political Action Committee this week sent an email about the proposed Charlotte rental ordinance with a letter from Paul Paskoff, director of the research and planning division for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.
Charlotte's rental property ordinance has been cussed and discussed for months now, and meanwhile police and the neighbors of troubled properties have had to deal with major problems. Certainly something must be done; maybe deeper research can help.
The letter makes clear that issues exist with current property records in Mecklenburg County. Records with valid contact information have many uses for various departments and a healthy community. Perhaps the implosion of the housing market, foreclosures and the bundling of risky real-estate loans have made finding property owners more difficult, but the community problems remain or worsen. And if those economic factors are major contributors, then the problems are national in scope, with perhaps ideas and assistance on a national level.
Paskoff's letter listed three reasons why he thinks an annual mandatory registration process is best for people who rent out their property.
And it listed concerns with the alternate idea offered by the Greater Charlotte Apartment Association and the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition, relying on the register of deeds office or the Mecklenburg County Property Assessment and Land Records Management Office. His research showed that those offices don't have records with contact information, and those offices don't have the resources to gather the information without imposing fees for document management.
A couple of new ideas surfaced in the letter: Register of Deeds David Granberry suggested that police work with the Mecklenburg County Tax Assessor's Office to get access to information about property owners. And Paskoff wrapped up his letter by saying a mandatory annual registration could be useful for other city departments, such as the Economic and Neighborhood Development Department (Property Code Division), the Charlotte Fire Department and and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities.
A long–term solution is needed; but a short–term fix is crucial as well. From the minutes of the July City Council meeting, council member Susan Burgess speaking:
"I can think of no better argument for this ordinance than 1813 Tyvola Road. For a year and a half, it's been a nuisance, it's been a danger, and it's been a blight to that entire neighborhood, and the reason nothing has been done about it is that no one can find the owner. I looked at the tax records one time. The tax was paid by some entity called 'Government Bank.' I know the Police Department has been involved, Code Enforcement has worked hard, but there is no person that anybody can find to help remedy this awful, awful situation. This neighborhood has lived with giant rats, with vagrants, with just terrible things going on in this property, and this ordinance would help us solve that problem and as it's repeated all over the city. We have all heard from neighborhood leaders and others who are just neighbors of these properties who are just so frustrated – they have just had it."
What remains unclear: How to fix the problem. A new database of ONLY property owners who rent their property leaves out modernization of property owners who DON'T rent out their property.
The deeper problems should be fixed. At the same time, police need help now in being able to find absentee landlords who fail to monitor their renters and thus increase the workload on police and the danger to nearby communities.
A couple of quick thoughts:
Perhaps a forensic researcher can track specific problem property owners, while the community takes a broader, longer look at how to modernize property records for the whole city.
Police know where the hot spots are, and a targeted effort would focus resources on the problems instead of increasing fees and work for all people who rent property. "Just Google it" won't find the owners; professional, paid research is required. Law firms have long employed special librarians for such work, and those same law firms have also cut back on employment of those people. They have the skills and access to databases on the deep web and can find stuff the ordinary Googler can't.
Mayor Pat McCrory touched on this in the July council minutes:
"The technology has changed so much, and if we just find out that one bank is the only contact we have, I don't think we are doing enough research. It might take a little more searching, an extra step to find out who that bank is and contacts there and who they are paying for, but there is a lot of data out there, and this is true with a lot of companies who are dealing with the same tenants. I want to make sure we take advantage of what existing data and resources are out there before we create another one."
Would using a police researcher to find specific properties be more efficient than managing a full police database of all rental properties? As long as documented increased police calls are available for specific properties, targeted research to find those property owners seems to be legally and ethically valid. (But I'm no legal expert; let me know if otherwise.)
Certainly funding is an issue, so asking questions about the most efficient use of available funds is crucial.
Short term (in government terms), requiring valid contact information for properties when property taxes are paid seems to be a valid solution to investigate further.
Long term, to modernize all records, perhaps other options are available beyond increased fees and taxes. Is there civic grant money available to modernize records? One Charlotte organization received more than $277,000 to create a virtual community library last year. Spending money to research and write grant applications would take resources, of course, but perhaps the return on investment would be higher.
Sources: City Council minutes, in PDF, from July.
Email from the Eastside PAC.
Knight Foundation community grant program.