Tupelo sees big hike in landlord fees

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – The city has collected $93,000 from landlords since Oct. 1, when its new rental permit program went into effect for everybody.
That’s a more than five-fold increase from the municipality’s previous collection record of $14,000 under the old rental permit program. But Tupelo lacks about $32,000 from landlords who haven’t yet paid and therefore are delinquent.
Development Services Department Director BJ Teal said the city is notifying those property owners of their past-due accounts and giving them an opportunity to pay before facing a $350 fine.
Money collected through the program goes into the city’s roughly $32 million general fund, which covers Tupelo’s ongoing operating expenses.
“The program is going great,” Teal told the Daily Journal recently. “We have had very few complaints.”
Tupelo revamped its five-year-old rental permit program on Jan. 1 by raising its annual registration fees and financially penalizing landlords who refused to comply.
Tupelo has some 5,100 rental units owned by an estimated 750 landlords. Each one in the city’s database received a letter in November 2011 about the new program. But the city knows some owners aren’t in their files; they’ve been trying to spread the word that those who don’t sign up face $350 fines.
Landlords already in the city’s database but who fail to register also face that fine. However, those who had paid Fiscal Year 2012 fees under the old rental program were exempt from the new schedule until Oct. 1 of this year.
The new program requires rental property owners to pay an annual $25-per-unit registration fee and submit to housing inspections every two years. Landlords who keep utilities in their own name will get inspected every six months.
Each of the first two inspections is free, but owners who repeatedly fail them must pay $100 to $400 for subsequent visits. After the fifth consecutive failure, landlords will be brought to court.
Inspections also will be required anytime a unit changes tenants.
Teal said none of the landlords thus far has failed more than one inspection, so the city hasn’t had to charge for repeated visits.
“We’re not finding near the violations we used to,” Teal said. “I think it’s because we’ve educated the public, and we’ve worked so hard in the last four years to try and educate the landlords.”
When the original program launched in 2007, it was common for the city’s housing inspectors to revisit a property multiple times and still not achieve compliance. Now, Teal said, it’s a rarity.
Housing inspector Lynda Ford visited a single-family rental house on Wednesday morning. Although the tenant wasn’t at home and the landlord didn’t have a key, she was able to inspect the exterior.
Ford found multiple violations: rotted wood under the porch and roof, a junk vehicle parked in the lawn, household debris scattered around the yard. She said the landlord already had put a lot of money into the home’s interior when he remodeled it several years ago. She felt confident he’d address the outside issues, too.
But Ford must return again soon to inspect the inside of the property, then return again to ensure compliance with her findings.
The process continues for every rental property in the entire city, including those within the newly annexed areas.
The program aims to clean up blighted rental property and improve the general health of all neighborhoods.
Proponents also hope it will decrease the overall percentage of rental units and encourage more home ownership, which stabilizes a community.
emily.lecoz@journalinc.com