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Anchorage

Anchorage landlord-tenant laws may get first update in decades

  • Author: Devin Kelly
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published April 10, 2016

Anchorage officials are proposing the first major update to local landlord-tenant requirements in nearly four decades, including new restrictions on space heaters and trash handling and stiffer penalties for landlords who don't meet minimum quality-of-life standards.

Potential changes are laid out in an ordinance being introduced Tuesday by Anchorage Assembly members Dick Traini, Elvi Gray-Jackson and Ernie Hall, and Mayor Ethan Berkowitz. The ordinance has been in the works for more than a year and focuses on the "housing occupancy and maintenance code," a section of Anchorage law that regulates life in rental properties and expectations for both landlords and tenants.

The code hasn't been revised since it was written in the 1970s. Officials say it's overdue for an update.

"It's bringing a 40-year-old section of code into the 21st century," said city ombudsman Darrel Hess, whose office spearheaded the legislation.

Most of the proposed changes deal with new terminology -- for example, the ordinance, in eight instances, replaces the word "rat" with "rodent."

But there are also more substantive additions, including a new requirement that space heaters can't be the sole source of heat in an apartment, except in an emergency. Even then, the landlord has to find a new heat source after 48 hours.

Another new section outlines fees for excessive violations of the regulations. The city may assess inspection fees if three or more notices are given to the same property owner or tenant within a year, if the problem wasn't fixed and the city warned about the possibility of the fees.

A new fine schedule isn't included in the proposed ordinance. Right now, it's a $75 fine for each violation. But officials said they're working on introducing higher fines to encourage landlords and tenants to comply with the regulations.

Other cities fine up to $1,000 for violations under similar codes, said Jeremy Baker, director of the fair housing enforcement project for Alaska Legal Services, an organization active in promoting tenant rights, including in the revised code. He said higher fines would aid in stronger enforcement.

Baker said updating the code is important for bringing Anchorage in line with other cities.

"This housing and occupancy code ensures a minimum standard for safe and healthy housing for everyone," Baker said. "It's really a public health issue, and a social justice issue."

Hess, the ombudsman, said he and his staff started looking into updating the city's housing and occupancy code because of all the phone calls he and his staff were receiving about problems between landlords and tenants.

People called to say that they were using a space heater because their landlord wouldn't fix the heat. Others complained about bug bites and shrews, malfunctioning refrigerators and sewage in crawl spaces.

In some cases, landlords were refusing to fix problems, Hess said.

Then, while researching a case, a deputy ombudsman came across the housing occupancy and maintenance code. None of them even knew it even existed, Hess said.

They saw that it was outdated and began to talk about updating it. The ombudsmen got in touch with Alaska Legal Services and city departments like code enforcement.

Months of meetings led to the ordinance being introduced Tuesday, Hess said. He noted that most of the changes simply bring the rules in line with the most recent national requirements that were adopted in 1986. Other provisions, like the rule against using space heaters as the sole source of heat, were suggested during the meetings.

The main goal, Hess said, is to let people know that they can call and file a complaint if there's a problem. He also said there should be consequences if violations go unaddressed.

Complaints have to be valid, "but if you get 10 complaints in six months, there's going to be accelerated penalties," Hess said.

He added that most landlords in Anchorage already do a good job. It's a handful of problematic landlords that are targeted by the harsher penalties, Hess said.

"The goal isn't to penalize landlords," Hess said. "It's to incentivize landlords to improve properties that fail to meet minimum health and safety requirements."

City code enforcement officer Jack Frost also stressed that the regulations don't just target landlords. Tenants need to make reasonable requests of landlords, too, Frost said. The regulations include a section on what's expected of tenants when it comes to maintenance, like trash removal and exterminating insects.

"We're trying to get to being equitable and even across the board," Frost said. The goal, he said, was to "make it clear for both the tenants and the landlords on what's expected from both sides."

A public hearing on the ordinance is expected to take place April 26.

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