An apartment complex that leases units in St. Joseph is seen.

In 2019, St. Joseph implemented a rental certification program to provide safe inventory of rental housing for residents and improve rental property appearance. For over a year, the program was voluntary and allowed free inspections as a way to ease into a mandatory, paid program, which started in July 2020.

“There had been an effort and a recognized concern based on property conditions in St. Joseph being substandard, housing conditions not even meeting minimum housing codes and the need to have a process that clearly identified what existing code requirements should be met,” said Clint Thompson, the St. Joseph Director of Planning and Development.

Before the city started the program, inspections were done on a complaint basis.

“So if a tenant contacted the city, and authorized the city to inspect the property, and signed a consent form, the city would go in and inspect that property and then make a note of any potential violations that existed and then inform the property owner,” Thompson said. “So it was more of a reactive basis. This is a proactive basis.”

The change to a mandatory program allowed the city to hire a permanent rental inspector. During the voluntary period, the rental inspectors had multiple responsibilities outside of inspections. And the numbers show a significant difference.

During one year and three months of the voluntary program, 368 inspections were completed. In the three months since the program became mandatory in July, the rental inspector has checked 172 properties — half the properties in a fifth of the time.

“We wanted to start with one position initially to see if that was adequate to handle the volume,” Thompson said. “If we needed to go to a second inspector, we would. At this time, it doesn’t seem like that’s the case.”

The mandatory program also changed how inspections can be conducted. A property owner can hire the city at $50 for a five-year certification, or they can become a self-certified inspector through the city at no cost, which allows them to inspect their own property for a two-year certification.

“If a property’s been self-inspected, and we get an audit, find a deficiency and the property should not have met the qualifications to ensure compliance, then we can pull that inspection and then that inspector that has been self-certified will lose that designation as an inspector.”

There are also a number of properties managed by outside entities that require compliance with federal regulations. These inspections are done through federal or state third-party agencies, such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Another aspect of the rental certification program is that property owners who lease a unit, whether single or duplex, are required to have a business license.

“The requirement for each unit to have a business license will be a tracking mechanism to ensure compliance and that was one of the reasons that the city implemented that if you are renting your property, for profit, then it should be operated as a business.”

Thompson said there are over 5,000 rental properties in St. Joseph. The mandatory program now requires each property to be inspected every five years when units are vacant.

“Obviously, it’s a large business, the rental industry, and we want to make sure that we are leveling the playing field that all property owners, landlords, property management companies are maintaining their properties to the same level,” Thompson said. “That’s the goal, essentially, is how do we make sure that those who are living in an individual unit that their property is safe for them.”

CORRECTION: The article previously stated property owners who lease three units or more are required to have a business license. This was the case before the rental certification program, which now requires owners of all units, no matter the number, to have a business license. News-Press NOW apologizes for the error.