As the Missoula Organization of Realtors learned Monday in City Council chambers, you just can’t argue with safety or family ghosts. Throughout a grueling public hearing, a procession of critics lined up behind the mic to poke shots at the landlord group for its lack of support for the city’s proposed rental inspection ordinance (in which landlords or tenants could ask inspectors to certify a dwelling as safe, or not). Midway through the hearing, Sue Wilkins, wife of the ordinance’s biggest Council supporter, Jon, invoked the memory of her brother, who tragically died last May after tumbling down a stairway that wasn’t up to code.

“Any landlord who opposes this clearly doesn’t want to get inspected anyway,” Wilkins said, pointedly. “Please support this and give some purpose to my brother’s death.”
Watching landlord spokesman Perry Deschamps and other realtors squirm under the onslaught stirred an awkward empathy typically reserved for Seinfeld’s George Costanza. Not to recast the landlords from their Dickensian molds, but the barbs seemed undeserved. After all, isn’t this just a voluntary inspection program? “Absolutely,” advocates enthusiastically respond.

“So it’s pretty minor, really?” we follow up.

“No way! It’s going to drastically improve the quality of Missoula’s housing stock,” they say.

Okay… but how? As long as this question remains unanswered, it appears that supporters, like Councilman Wilkins, are talking out of both sides of their mouth about an ordinance that’s mostly window dressing.

So let’s place an injunction on the demagogic posturing and talk plainly: If rental conditions in Missoula really pose a threat to public safety, then shouldn’t this thing be mandatory? Contra Costa, Calif., Davidson, Mich., and countless other local governments have gone this route. The Missoula proposal, however, relies on vague advertising incentives for landlords to comply, and, as city attorney Jim Nugent notes, the inspections are only legally valid on the day they’re performed. Add in the fact that the ordinance barely addresses the city resources that would have to be expended in inspecting thousands of units annually (assuming it’s a success of any kind) and it’s no wonder always-candid industry leader Bruno Friia plainly stated last week, “We’re not worried.”

Of course, the iron-fisted alternative pursued in places like Contra Costa is more controversial, requiring additional political will to move it forward. What consequently emerged from a tub of compromise in Missoula looks more like a wishy-washy and toothless voluntary certification program than honest-to-God regulation. If that will truly suffice, then so be it—but, for that, we can leave the ghosts at home.
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