Property owners in Kent — whether of rentals or owner-occupied houses — will soon have a new set of rules to follow for interior building and safety standards.
voted Wednesday night to adopt the interior code section of the International Code Council's International Property Maintenance Code. The code "provides requirements for continued use and maintenance of plumbing, mechanical, electrical and fire protection systems in existing residential ... structures," according to the ICC website.
Bridget Susel, acting director of the , said the city has no laws or regulations to force landlords to make repairs if a house has interior problems that make unfit for habitation, such as a leaking roof, faulty plumbing or failing appliances.
"Instead of viewing this as … a heavy handed invastion of personal liberties, it really is nothing more than securing safe property," Susel said. "The perception is that if this code is adopted, we will be able to go into a house and cite without cause. Civil liberties (are) not going to be suspended under this. We still have to be invited in."
Susel was among several city department heads who testified before council Wednesday about the code, including the heads of the health, building and fire departments.
Robert Nitzsche, Kent's chief building official, told council members that he commonly sees life-threatening issues inside houses but can't cite the owner because Kent has no code to cite them under.
"When I send somebody out or I myself go out, I am hamstringed," Nitzsche said. "There are certain things I can’t do."
Recently, the city adopted the exterior portion of the ICC property maintenance code, but at the time council members voted not to adopt the interior section.
Through the health department, Kent licenses multi-use residential structures that have two or more unrelated people living in them. Under the licensing program, health officials conduct annual inspections based on the city's environmental health and housing maintenance code.
But Kent Health Commissioner Jeff Niestadt said the license inspection only addresses basic health and safety standards.
"Which is in my opinion very minimum standards," he said. "We’re talking light switches, tiles, pipes not dripping when you run the water. We’re not really addressing the structural integrity of the houses."
Nitzsche said those inspections typically won't catch building issues such as an improperly installed hot water tank or furnace, either of which could lead to serious safety problems.
"You have to remember, the health department are santiarians," Nitzsche said. "They have a different outlook than we do."
Susel gave one example of a house that was condemned by the city after the five tenants, some of whom are students at , called to complain that their landlord was not fixing problems in the house.
She said the house, at 305 University Drive, had been improperly excavated around the foundation without filing for a permit with the city. The excavation left the main gas line into the house and the gas meter hanging in mid air. Building officials found improperly installed gas lines, collapsed ceilings, a non-functioning smoke detector and an improperly wired fuse box.
Chris Binkley, one of the students who lived in the house, said they gave the landlord a list of problems they identified when they first moved in that included leaking ceilings.
"He assured us it would be taken care of within a month," he said. “Nothing was ever fixed. We actually couldn’t be in one of the bedrooms and the living room during or after storms because the water would leak through."
Eventually, Binkley and his roommates were evicted by the landlord in November after trying to withhold their rent to force the repairs.
The house was licensed in 2011 with the health department by Vincent DeGeorge, according to health department records. The property is owned by A & H Investments Join Venture LLC, according to Portage County Auditor's Office online records. The owner has a Sagamore Hills address.
Greg Jarvie, vice president for enrollment management at Kent State, said such cases are why the university supported adoption of the interior maintenance code.
"I know this can be an enforcement issue," Jarvie said. "If there’s anything we can do to help we’ll be more than happy to assist in any way we can.”
Councilman Wayne Wilson cast the only vote against adopting the code in Wednesday's committee meeting. The issue will return to council later this month for a final vote.
The code would apply to both rental properties and owner-occupied houses.
Councilman Jack Amrhein said landlords have a responsibility to provide safe housing for their tenants.
"If someone feels that some civil rights are being violated because they don’t want (inspectors) entering their property, what about a renter’s civil rights to live in a safe dwelling," Amrhein said.