Enforcement begins for rental housing codes

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Editor’s note: The headline of this article has been changed because the rental housing codes are being enforced, not nearing expiration.

Health and safety for residents of rental properties is a concern for the City of Vermillion. The city is enforcing changes made by the city council in 2011 after giving landlords time to bring their properties up to code.

On Aug. 1, 2011 the city council adopted changes to the Rental Housing Code that included the need for hard-wired smoke detectors, HVAC improvements and egress windows in all bedrooms.

City Manager John Prescott said the reason for the changes is the safety and health of the occupants.

“We understand there is a cost for (the changes), but we look at the health and safety,” Prescott said.

Senior Paige Korn said affordability is her number one concern when looking for rental housing, but believes safety should be standard.

“I should not be responsible for know if (my apartment) is up to code,” Korn said. “It should be my landlord.”

Korn’s rental housing unit was recently renovated with the city’s code requirements that are being enforced.

“It might not be the nicest place, but you come into this community and you rent the first thing you find — you have faith that it’s safe,” said Richard Draper, Vermillion Fire Chief.

The enforcement of the codes will make sure that rental housing will be up to safety standards.

Smoke Detectors

By Jan. 1, 2014, all rental housing in Vermillion will be required to have hard wired fire alarms installed. Prescott said when inspecting rental units, the city noticed the battery-operated fire alarms often had the battery taken out of them.

Almost two-thirds of home fire deaths resulted from fires in properties without working smoke alarms, according to a 2011 National Fire Protection Association report.

“Working smoke alarms are essential in saving lives from fire,” said Lorraine Carli, NFPA’s vice president of communications in the report. “We know you can have as little as three minutes to get out if you have a fire before it becomes deadly. The early warning provided by smoke alarms gives you extra time to escape.”

The city is also requiring carbon monoxide detectors in rental units with fuel-fired appliances or attached garages.

Carbon monoxide is known as the “silent killer” because of its lack of odor and color. In 2010 fire departments in the United States responded to 80,100 calls for carbon monoxide according to a 2012 NFPA report.

HVAC System

The city is also requiring all rental dwellings to have separate heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems by Aug. 1, 2014. The concern is return air from one dwelling can spread through heating and cooling systems to another dwelling.

The code will affect approximately 30 properties needing to seal off shared air between units and install separate HVAC systems said Prescott.

“You’re not signing up to share the dwelling with the other units – cooking odors, smoking odors can transfer between dwellings,” he said.

Another reason for the change is to allow tenants to control their own HVAC system. In shared air units, one dwelling can control the whole building’s heating and cooling.

Rental units located in buildings that were once single-family houses often run into this problem because the house was not originally designed for separate tenants said Prescott.

If landlords are not able to make the change by the deadline, City Council can grant an extension if the property owner provides a clear timeline and proof they are working to correct the issue.

Egress Windows

Egress windows, or emergency escape windows located within bedrooms, are going to need to have a clear opening of 5.7-square-feet for emergency escape.

The city has identified 177 windows that need to be replaced. The landlords have six months, excluding January and February 2014, from their inspection to replace the window with one that meets the Rental Housing Code. It takes two years for the city of Vermillion to complete inspections of all rental properties in Vermillion.

“(The window) will provide appropriate methods to egress should there be a fire and they can’t get out through the hallways or other doors,” Prescott said. “It will be another means to escape the building or the structure.”

An exception for existing rental units will be to allow a clear opening of 5-square-feet so that property owners would not need to make major structural changes to the window frame.

The cost for bringing egress windows can be around $800 per window, Prescott said he has heard from some property owners. He said it all comes down to safety.

Prescott said the city would consider extensions to property owners if they cannot meet the deadline of six months; if they provide an appropriate plan to bring the windows to code.

The code states an egress window must be in every bedroom, but they only need one per room.

Prescott said the city is looking to create a window permitting process to ensure all future rental properties are built to code when a window is replaced.

For all three changes, the code only applies to rental properties in Vermillion, It does not apply to homeowners. The code also does not apply to University of South Dakota’s residence halls because they are state property said Prescott.