Milford property owners could potentially face a fine of $1,000 per day if they don’t comply with new standards the city recently passed regarding rental property owners.
The Milford City Council unanimously passed a new ordinance Dec. 5 that implements a new residential rental property registration and inspection process to their code of ordinances. According to the ordinance, property owners are now required to register their property with the city by Jan. 30 each year or within 15 days of becoming a rental property. The fee is $25 per registration.
If a property owner is found in violation of the ordinance, they are guilty of a class C misdemeanor and would be punishable by a fine of $1,000 for each violation, with each day of an offense constituting as a separate violation.
“The fine can be from a dollar," city secretary Carlos Phoenix explained. "But it cannot go over $1,000.”
Phoenix noted that this ordinance came about as a result of tenants complaining to the city about the living conditions in their rentals.
“We’ve had numerous complaints where people were complaining about stuff going on with their landlords and the houses they were renting,” Phoenix said. ”Our hands were tied. There was nothing that we could really do.”
To address these mounting concerns, Phoenix said that an ordinance was drafted to hold rental property owners accountable. Phoenix explained that the ordinance implements inspectors to owners’ properties to make sure their floors, walls and electrical connections all met city safety standards.
‘They’re looking for hazards,” Phoenix remarked. “Then they will point them out to the homeowners, and those will need to be corrected.”
However, Waxahachie-based attorney Dan Gus has questioned the constitutionality of the ordinance. He said some of his clients, many of which are property owners in Milford, have several problems with the mandate, from being forced to register their property with the city to pay a registration fee.
But Gus explained that one of the more vague areas of the ordinance involves its inspections. Gus said that a warrantless search could be initiated simply from a police officer pointing out a code violation from a property, allowing them to investigate a criminal issue without a warrant.
Gus said that could open up potential violations of the fourth amendment to unreasonable searches and seizures.
“There’s no definition on what constitutes as a dangerous issue,” Gus expressed. "We think it’s unconstitutional.”
Phoenix disputed that opinion, stating that the word “search” doesn’t even appear in the ordinance itself. Gus countered by stating that the word itself doesn’t have to be in the mandate to mean the same thing.
“An inspection is a search of a property,” Gus explained. “If they can go into the property looking for things, then that’s a search. That’s already been held by the Northern District of Texas and the fifth circuit that this regime of doing ‘inspections’ is a search, per the fourth amendment.”
Phoenix said the city had seen positive reception from several residents – including a few property owners that are looking to better comply with city regulations.
“We had one of the landowners yesterday come in and say ‘Hey, thank you guys for doing this,’” Phoenix recalled. “’This is something great that’s going to help me out for my properties.’”
Regardless, Gus explained he’s already advised his clients on how to respond to the ordinance and understand their rights as property owners. He said his office, Gus & Gilbert Law Firm, has not filed a lawsuit against the city as of yet for the ordinance, but they’re prepared to should one of their clients gives them the green light on that.
“The city claims that what they’re doing is necessary to protect tenants against unsafe living conditions,” Gus said. “I respect that fully. But we already have state laws on the books to provide those protections to tenants, and those state laws do not involve the unconstitutional infringements that this ordinance involves.”
Gus said the city has already seen several citizens turn out to voice their disagreement over this ordinance. Gus said he hopes the city will listen to those residents.
“The city council said they’re willing to work with property owners to address concerns about this,” Gus said. “I hope they follow through.”
The ordinance went into effect Jan. 1.