At that turbulent confluence where the entitlements of tenants meet basic property rights, it’s easy for anyone closely connected to the rental housing market to get swept under. Harboring the unsettling suspicion—apparently held by a few local landlords— that some unnamed cabal has just had its way, one might concede reason to fervor.
Case in point: For the past two weeks, speculation has swelled around a city proposal barely out of subcommittee that, proponents argue, would help protect area renters. In this case, the hullabaloo involves a few contentious words: Safety. Inspection. Program.
Those three nouns occupy prime real estate in the title of a preliminary city proposal that would have city inspectors stamp properties as safe (or not) for an as-yet-undetermined fee. Several members of the public safety committee that helped draft the proposal believe its purpose has been lost in a wash of confusion. Committee member Bob Jaffe told the Independent that a tenant could already call in city inspectors to investigate a safety complaint. “The idea was to create more of a voluntary certification program,” Jaffe said.
Yet, even landlords close to the drafting process are taking issue with the proposed ordinance. Several prominent figures with the Missoula Association of Realtors maintain that ambiguity in the language would place property owners in a precarious position. Although the association emphasized that it supports the goal (this was stated seven times between three sources), it worries that a Wyatt Earp-like inspector could make minor code issues—like the rise and run of a staircase—into a steep affair.
“We don’t want it to open a Pandora’s box,” association chairman Perry Deschamps explained. “While it’s voluntary on the inspection side, it’s mandatory on the repair side.”
Deschamps pointed to specific lines in the proposal that call for code-violating properties to be vacated or demolished. The resulting reduced housing stock, which most likely would occur at the low-income end, could trigger rent increases citywide, he asserts\.
Housing activists snort at that idea. “I think that’s a worst-case scenario,” says student housing advocate Denver Henderson, who likened the situation to American automakers’ claims in the 1970s that federal air quality regulation would lead to bankruptcy. “Obviously, that wasn’t the case then.”
The current iteration of the ordinance is likely to reach city council in the coming weeks. Initial committee efforts to set a date for public hearing, however, have been delayed amid concerns that the measure is still a “moving target.”
Considering that the issue has been a moving target in Missoula for decades, it’s anybody’s guess when city officials and landlords will hit a bullseye, kill someone’s sacred cow—or have one.