As York City inspects rentals, activist wants information


Rick Merck has lived the non- air-conditioned life, so he can empathize with those York City renters who suffer the summer heat.

But even in his role as a property inspector, he can do nothing for those sweaty people.

That's because Merck and other Qdot Engineering inspectors must apply the city's housing standards — not their own — to tenant- occupied properties.

Last year, city officials hired Merck's company to conduct all rental inspections, starting in February.

The number of rental properties in York City is fluid, but the best estimate puts the total around 6,000, Merck said.

That's properties with addresses — not individual units. In other words, an apartment building with 80 units would count only once toward the total number of properties.

Each property must be inspected every two years, though there's a small number of student-housing properties that must be inspected annually.

The job, in a nutshell, is to make sure rental properties comply with a set of basic health and safety standards. Some of those standards are objective and simple, Merck said.

Each unit must have a bathroom, for example.

But other standards are more subjective, such as the requirement the roof be "free from obvious deterioration."

Building data: Merck said his company is building a database of inspection statistics from scratch. The city had not been keeping information on rental properties in a database format before Qdot took over, he said.

But, with only about six months worth of data, it's too early to draw any major conclusions about the state of rental housing in York City, Merck said.

"Our data so far shows us that, of the ones that we have been in, 61 percent are compliant just as we walk in," he said.

That, of course, means 39 percent are not compliant at the first inspection. But those units are not necessarily unsafe or unsanitary, Merck said.

In only a few cases, Qdot has alerted the city that a rental unit is unfit for human habitation, he said. Most of the times that units fail a first inspection, the tenant and landlord — depending on who is responsible for correcting the violation — is given time to do so, and then a follow-up inspection is scheduled, Merck said.

And, being compliant does not necessarily mean that units are in great condition, either, he said.

"Everybody can agree you have to have running water. You have to have a toilet that works. You have to have a place to prepare food and to wash dishes. You have to have windows that operate, doors that close and electric lights. You have to be able to get rid of waste. And so, truly, those are the basics," Merck said.

A Right to Know: Christine Lincoln, York City's poet laureate, is determined to shed light on what she's concluded are "appalling" housing conditions in the city.

Lincoln recently submitted a Right to Know request for records of tenant-occupied property violations. The city has an Aug. 26 deadline to respond.

"Why is no one talking about it? I've never heard anyone say anything about it," Lincoln said.

Her concerns are legitimate, Merck said.

"I do believe that she is justified in her comments. She's responding to specific cases that she sees," Merck said. "Do I think that it's the majority? No, I don't. However, if there's one, we want to know about it. And we want to attempt to help."

Asked if York City has a slumlord problem, Merck said Qdot has had "nothing but very collegial relationships with the landlords and the property-management companies that we've worked with so far."

But Merck reiterated that Qdot has only inspected about a quarter of York City's rental properties so far.

"I know we haven't seen it all," he said.