Local landlords protest process for window code update
By Travis Gulbrandson
At least five local landlords decried what some of them called a “double standard” regarding egress window requirements during the regular city council meeting Monday night.
The ordinance they spoke against has been on the books for two years.
The council members were voting to give rental property owners an extension to get the proper egress windows installed – a plan they passed unanimously.
Council member Kelsey Collier-Wise spoke in favor of allowing the extension, saying, “For the landlords that aren’t here tonight, I would hate for them to lose an opportunity to take a little more time to make these repairs based on the conversation that happened tonight that really doesn’t have anything to do with the extension. …
“I would hate to see that tabled based on a discussion of a standard that was set literally before I was even on the council,” Collier-Wise said. “I mean, we’re talking about it tonight like it’s up for debate, but this has been the law of the land even prior to this current council.”
The ordinance that was adopted in August 2011 required egress windows of at least five square feet to be installed in the bedrooms of all rental properties. The purpose of the windows is to give tenants a means of escape during a fire.
City Manager John Prescott said Monday that inspections are still being made on the local rental properties, which contain approximately 2,600 units in approximately 930 structures overall.
As of last week, “We had about 215 windows that needed to be replaced with egress windows of at least five square feet,” he said.
The top four landlords with respect to the number of windows that need to be replaced are 99, 55, 21 and 6, Prescott said.
The landlords who spoke Monday night said the city is putting them to what Jill Shaffer called “an extreme double standard.”
Shaffer expressed frustration that landlords are being held to a higher standard than owner-occupied homes in terms of fire protection.
“Landlords are respected in Brookings,” she said. “If I were to own property in Brookings, I would not have to jump through hoop after hoop after hoop in order to rent it. I would be regarded as someone who gives to this community economically.”
Barb Iacino made similar comments, saying, “It’s a safety issue for our tenants, but it’s not a safety issue for the babies in the private homes, and it’s not a safety issue for the kids on campus, and it’s not a safety issue for the people in Sioux Falls, who don’t have this (ordinance), even though they have colleges, or Yankton, or Brookings.”
Mayor Jack Powell countered that the city has no control over what happens on campus property.
Iacino and Shaffer each made statements to the effect that it would cost $4 million for the windows to be replaced.
When asked by council member Kent Osborne if they had any figures that showed how they arrived at that number, they said they did not bring them.
According to a memo distributed to the city council members, and which is available on the city’s Web site, “the cost to replace egress windows will vary depending on the work that is needed. In many instances, a double-hung window can be removed from the opening and a casement window installed.”
Other landlords, including Harlowe Hatle, Don Foley and Woody Houser also spoke against the egress window regulations.
Foley said the windows are not cost effective, adding that the problem is “less risky than getting struck by lightning.”
Shaffer made a similar comment, remarking that, “In the 21 years I’ve been in Vermillion, I’ve known of one fire in a rental.”
Houser said previous city regulations like hard-wired smoke detectors are ineffective because if they’re beeping, students can still remove the batteries.
“We have no safety there whatsoever,” he said.
Several of the landlords also said the figure of approximately 200 windows needing replacement is inaccurate, and that the number would be larger.
Toward the end of the discussion, Prescott said, “Apparently some of the people in the audience want that number to be higher because they’re unsatisfied that some of the larger properties have gone through (the inspection process), and that’s all we’ve come up with.
“It’s also a little telling to me – and I look at the list (of rental property owners) – some of the people talking tonight … have been inspected, and they’re not even on the list,” Prescott said.
With the option the council enacted Monday night, rental property owners will be able to fill out a form describing why they need an extension for replacing their egress windows.
These will be approved on a case-by-case basis.
According to the memo given to city council members, all new construction since the mid-1960s has required a five square-foot or 5.7 square-foot egress.
“The rental registry process since the 1980s has required all properties coming onto the rental registry to have at least a five square-foot egress window in each bedroom,” the memo said. “The national egress window standard was increased from five square feet to 5.7 square feet in 1976.”
Also at Monday’s meeting, the council approved an ordinance removing the building permit exemption for replacement windows in existing openings, and added regulations and requirements for replacement windows.
Vermillion Building Official Farrel Christensen said it became apparent during the rental housing inspections that several windows that were once compliant with city codes no longer are.
“We narrowed it down to the idea that people were replacing windows with different styles of windows,” he said. “Because we do have the exception in our rental housing code for the replacement of windows and existing openings, the city was not consulted, and we didn’t have a chance to help people choose the correct window.”
Most of the problems occurred when a casement window was replaced by a double-hung window, Christensen said.
“Double-hung windows only open for half of the available space, and of course reduce that opening,” he said.
Eliminating the exception will prevent the wrong style of window being installed, Christensen said.
The council unanimously enacted the ordinance.