By Brian Maass
FEDERAL HEIGHTS, Colo. (CBS4) – Government-ordered mandatory inspections of rental homes and apartments in Federal Heights are coming under increasing fire with some renters, property managers and property owners fighting back, claiming the inspections discriminate against renters and are a violation of their constitutional rights.
“I just felt like my privacy was violated. I’ve never had the police walk through every room of my house,” said Kerrie Than, a renter whose three bedroom home was inspected earlier this month against her wishes. “This is my house. I invite people into my house, they don’t invite themselves into my house, period,” said Than.
Kimberly Wallet, who has rented a home in Federal Heights for more than 10 years, recently wrote the city questioning the mandatory rental unit inspections.
“It appears that you are singling out renters, but I don’t understand why. Especially when I look at the properties of my neighbors that I know own their homes and their homes/lots are in much worse condition,” wrote Wallet. “You are telling me by enforcing this ordinance, that my home and privacy can be invaded because I am renting, however my neighbor that owns his home will not be ‘inspected’ even if there are obvious signs of city ordinance violations; otherwise known as probable cause.”
Federal Heights enacted an ordinance in 2013 mandating inspections of rental homes once every four years for homes and apartments more than six years old. Since then, City Inspector Kristen Teague has inspected 2,022 rental units.
“It helps reduce slum and blight potential. It’s a benefit economically for the municipality,” said Teague. ”I think the idea is to promote safe, habitable housing for all.”
Teague told CBS4 she wears a body camera for all rental inspections and records everything she sees. Federal Heights administrators say with many low and moderate income residents scrambling for affordable rentals, many of those tenants are less apt to complain about housing issues and are more vulnerable to eviction.
But more and more renters and landlords are now pushing back against the law saying it is fundamentally unfair and violates their Fourth Amendment rights. Jay Hill, whose family has managed rental units in and around Federal Heights for more than 50 years, told CBS4, “They are treating the renters as second class citizens, they’re discriminating against the renters and that just gets me so upset.“
His brother, Matt Hill, a homeowner, said, “The government can’t come into my house and can’t look into my wife’s closet. If they can’t do that for me, why is the government allowed to do that for someone else? Shouldn’t we all be treated the same?”
The Hills are now asking other Federal Heights renters and property owners to push back against the mandatory inspections, and the brothers are pressing a court fight hoping the Colorado Supreme Court will eventually consider the legality of rental home inspections in Colorado.
“Your right to privacy in your home applies to everybody,” said Jay Hill. ”There’s no distinction between renters and homeowners.”
But in Federal Heights and numerous other Colorado cities, municipalities regularly inspect rental properties for safety and cleanliness even if there are no complaints.
“It benefits the tenants and the property owners,” said Teague.
She said tenants — who might not complain for fear of being evicted — get a clean and safe home and property owners can see a reduction in their liability issues. Teague said the inspections also improve the quality of neighborhoods.
The Federal Heights inspections usually take less than an hour and check for basic safety issues like safe wiring and smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. But the inspection also drills down making sure screens aren’t torn or ripped, kitchen sinks have garbage disposals, and tenants aren’t living with excessive mold or mildew.
“If there is mold or mildew, that will be checked, yes,” said Teague.
Kerrie Than said she thought the government could only enter your home if there was reason to believe a crime had occurred.
”It’s wrong for the government to come into your house. There has to be probable cause. There was no probable cause,” she said.
When the inspection was over, Than and her landlords were ordered to produce a sink stopper for an upstairs bathroom and fix a small tear in a screen. Than said those minor issues were quickly fixed. If a property fails the first time around and has to be re-inspected, Federal Heights can impose a re-inspection fee of $90.
Failure to fix problems can land a property owner or landlord in court. City rental inspector Teague shared with CBS4 dozens of photos showing unsafe ventilation systems she had found, dangerous electrical setups, padlocked exit doors, and unsanitary homes littered with animal and human feces.
Teague said dozens of other states have similar rental inspection laws and many have been upheld. However that’s not always the case. Last year a federal Judge in Ohio ruled rental property inspections amounted to illegal searches. In San Luis Obispo, California, residents have started a petition drive to do away with their city’s mandatory rental inspection program. In Beloit, Wisconsin, a group of landlords has filed a civil lawsuit against the city over its rental inspection program. Earlier this month, the Kansas Legislature passed a bill that would prohibit periodic inspections of rental home interiors for code violations without resident consent. That bill is awaiting the governor’s signature.
In Federal Heights, Than is still seething over the mandatory inspection of her home.
“The more they walked through my house, the madder I got.”