Landlord balks at rental housing code change

By Travis Gulbrandson

Owners of Vermillion rental housing are required to have egress windows in each bedroom that offer an opening of 5.7 square feet for a new construction, and 5 square feet for existing buildings.

These standards were set by the rental housing code that was adopted by the city in 2011, and were discussed by the city council and several landlords last Monday.

Vermillion Building Official Farrel Christensen said the code was enacted following the deck collapse at Carey’s Bar, and also dealt with deck specifications and smoke detectors.

“Many structures in town were built prior to the building code, or when building codes required smaller windows,” Christensen said. “Right now we’re looking at 66 structures that have windows that don’t meet the code. We’re telling those owners – and we have through numerous letters sent out over the last couple of years – that their buildings … are going to have to be of minimum standard to provide the occupants with a good egress window.”

He acknowledged the replacement process is not easy or quick, which is why landlords will be required to update their windows “in the next few years.”

“The idea is, we will eventually get a window that’s safe for the occupants to get out of,” he said.

Christensen said the code changes were based on the International Property and Maintenance Code and made for the “health, safety and welfare” of local tenants.

He cited statistics from FEMA that list 2,495 civilian fires resulting in 1,214 fatalities for a period covering 2009-2011.

“Fifty-three percent of these fatalities occurred in bedrooms, and of those, they happened at night from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.,” he said. “Of that 1,200-some people, 17.1 (percent) of those fatalities … were directly the result of egress problems. Another 16.1 were escape problems.

“We feel that we’re pretty justified in asking people to come up to code,” he said.

Using a 28- by 14-inch piece of cardboard, Christensen showed the council one example of a window size seen on a local rental property that he said is too small.

“Have you tried to get out?” asked Vermillion landlord Harlowe Hatle. “I’m 72 years old, morbidly obese, I have a handicapped sticker hanging off my car. I went into that bedroom, and from the time I opened the bedroom door to the time I was out the window was less than a minute.”

“I’m not disputing that, either, but you’re not getting out very easily, and you’re going out head-first,” Christensen said. “These windows are high up on the wall. … You can’t get your feet up there to go feet-first, so you’re either diving out into an egress well that’s only three feet deep.

“If you’re on the second or third floor, you’re doing a face-plant into the ground,” he said. “This hasn’t been a legal-size window ever in the building code. This building was built prior to some building codes, and like many other buildings in town, because we don’t have a requirement of replacing windows to get building permits, the windows could possibly have been changed to a smaller one.”

Hatle said he changed some windows several years ago and “nobody said boo about it then.”

“I don’t know why I should throw $20,000 into that because you changed your mind,” he said.

“We don’t change our mind,” Christensen said. “The building code is what the building code is, and if we’re asked about it, we tell people what the building code says. What happens is, a lot of times there’s no requirements for permits. People put in whatever they want.

“More casement windows have been replaced with double-high windows in apartments that were previously approved and had the right windows, so we’re backing up on this,” he said. “We’re becoming more non-compliant, so we thought this was the time it’s got to quit.”

Christensen added that a requirement for the larger-sized window has been in the international code since 1964.

“It’s been around a long time,” he said.

Hatle further said there have been no deaths in Vermillion as the result of fires.

“The best prediction on an event that has never happened is that it’s not going to happen,” he said.

“What we’re saying here is we don’t want it to happen,” Christensen said.

Mayor Jack Powell agreed, saying, “I think it behooves us to keep current with safety issues, and I understand your point. … I just feel it’s important for our city to follow the codes that we adopted.”

“It is interesting that other cities don’t feel that way,” Hatle said.

“I think we’re talking about Vermillion, though, Harlowe,” Powell answered.

City Manager John Prescott pointed out that many cities do require a permit for window installation.

“In our future conversations, we felt that was one way in which we could hopefully nip some of these future issues from happening is if a window permit is required,” Prescott said.

Prescott said the city probably will see a proposal that reflects that in October.

Council member Kelsey Collier-Wise said she understands that landlords and others want reassurance over this issue.

“For the most part, I think the professionals who work in our city departments do their best not to make a lot of changes for people or make things onerous,” she said. “But on the other hand, I think it’s important for everyone to know, and certainly everyone in business, that there are no absolutes. We are in a political process at the municipal level, the state level, the federal level, depending on who’s in office things could change. Requirements could change.

“This idea that people were promised 10, 20, 30 years ago that they would be able to not ever have to change their property when they’re in a business situation – I think people need to understand that there’s always the possibility of change,” she said.

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