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There are certainly aspects of implementing an inspection process for rental properties to like.

Members of the Watertown City Council voted against an ordinance in 2001 requiring the owners of apartment buildings to register their units and have them inspected before renting them. The issue was dormant for years until Rodney J. LaFave brought it up when he unsuccessfully ran in the City Council primary last month.

Such a program could potentially catch minor issues before they become major problems. Resolving them in their formative stages would prevent them from worsening the conditions of these rental properties further.

Putting a program like this into effect, however, would have its challenges. The first one is pretty obvious: How would the city pay for it?

And would bringing inspectors into individual units of apartment buildings raise issues of liability if they viewed something questionable going on? Would they be required to report anything suspicious concerning how some people were being treated? And if they didn’t, could this raise the legal issue of neglect on the city’s part?

These are just a few of the questions city officials would have to address if they decided to consider a rental property inspection program. Similar ordinances have been put into effect in other communities throughout the state including Ogdensburg, and there could be merit in discussing the matter to see if there is any interest in pursuing it.

Of the four candidates running for the two City Council seats up for election Nov. 5, three said they have an open mind about a potential rental property inspection program: Councilwoman Teresa R. Macaluso, and challengers Cody J. Horbacz and Stephen A. Jennings. Councilman Jeffrey M. Smith was one of the council members who voted against the idea in 2001, and he said his mind hasn’t changed since then.

One concern brought up when rental inspection programs are discussed is the potential violation of the constitutional right against unreasonable searches and seizures. But there is precedent for these inspections. Homes and businesses must be inspected to ensure they comply with local and state codes before being occupied by new owners, and the same argument could be made with rental properties.

An issue that landlords raised in opposing this program in 2001 was that the proposed ordinance did nothing to ensure tenants were liable for any damage they caused inside the units. This would be difficult to resolve as it pertains to the leases between the landlords and tenants, not with any inspection objectives the city would pursue.

An additional question raised in some communities across the nation is that of due process. What can landlords do to appeal any decision by municipal officials to cite a stated violation?

One of the most important issues is whether an inspection process would be sufficient to address the cause of the city’s deteriorating rental stock. This goes hand in hand with what resources would be available to resolve any ongoing issues with apartment buildings.

Representatives of the city are required to conduct external inspections of apartment buildings every three years. Perhaps Watertown could extend this a step further. Pending approval by the City Council, inspectors could demand to review the inside of units at apartment buildings where code violations have been found.

It could be that such a program would be too costly for the city to run efficiently. But if officials choose to consider implementing it, they’ll have to resolve many of these questions along the way.

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