OTTUMWA — The city of Ottumwa will continue its stay on inspections of rental properties during COVID-19 after hearing from local landlords about their pandemic concerns during Tuesday's special meeting at City Hall.

The council didn't take formal action but is expected to develop and vote on a time frame for its meeting next week. A popular opinion among council and staff was a 90-day moratorium on inspections, and then a re-evaluation as vaccines continue to be administered to the public.

City planning and development director Kevin Flanagan said the Building and Code Enforcement department is about 650 inspections behind, though it hasn't scheduled inspections since last week. Being behind is not unusual, Flanagan said, but it could become more problematic should there be a longer-term lapse in inspections.

"Over the past few years, we haven't had the same amount of employees or new inspections. Probably about 5% of our inspection units are vacant now," he said, later advocating for a three-month suspension of inspections. "In a busier place, you might get half of them vacant, but there just aren't a lot of new apartments being built right now."

Inez Hill, co-president of the Wapello County Landlords Association, opposed starting any new inspections. She said her tenants have contracted the virus and hidden it, and was concerned about spread of the virus, either unknowingly by inspectors or by the tenants.

"I don't feel the virus has eased, because you see daily reports about those who have tested positive and those who have died," she said. "I'm not asking for the inspections to be done away with, but I hope they will be postponed right now.

"We pay the required inspection fees so the city isn't losing money."

Landlords John Conder and Norman Higinbotham have tenants who work at JBS and tested positive. Both try to avoid their tenants unless it's an emergency.

"They don't want me or anyone else at the house. They're gun-shy and mail me the rent, and if they have children they're super gun-shy," Conder said. "I rent my houses out by the college, and those people pay good rent. They don't want people around."

Higinbotham takes pride in keeping his units maintained, but believes there are many others who don't.

"I think the health department knows who the bad landlords are," he said. "Maybe they should concentrate on them. We take care of our properties. I have to be there when the inspection occurs, and I don't care to go over there more than I have to."

Councilman Marc Roe sympathized with those who spoke, but shot down Higinbotham's comment about "bad landlords."

"I think concentrating on bad landlords is a dangerous road to go down that leads to some possible discrimination-type issues," Roe said. "It just seems to set us up for a lawsuit. My concern is that we're at a bad point in history and there's no such thing as business as usual, but we wouldn't be here if we weren't concerned about the safety of the tenants, the properties, the landlords, etc." Roe recommended postponing inspections "for a vaccination cycle," noting "who knows how long it'll take to get vaccinations up to par."

Despite the safety concerns, Flanagan's department is still required to address complaints and other emergencies.

"Our goal is fairness and equity. We do our inspection process based on when units come up for their inspection on a three-year cycle," he said. "We try to get the lowest-hanging fruit first according to how that schedule falls."

City administrator Phil Rath said the city code allows for some "negotiation" between tenants and inspectors if tenants or landlords do not want inspectors in the rental units. However, inspectors can apply for a search warrant if landlords or tenants continue to stonewall.

"Our obligation is to follow the code and do that in the most safe and efficient manner for our staff and the public," he said. "But I'm not aware of anything that says we can't stay the regulations or code for whatever period of time."

Almost everyone said it was important for more vaccinations to take place in the population before resuming inspections on a wide scale.

"What is the harm of holding off on inspections during this time?" councilman Matt Dalby asked. "Nothing really but the revenue we don't get, which I think we can survive. Our priority is public safety, and always has been."

— Chad Drury can be reached at cdrury@ottumwacourier.com, and on Twitter @ChadDrury

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