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Local editorial

Stop talking and take action Medford should do something now about substandard rental housing

Medford has a serious problem with substandard, in some cases even toxic, rental housing. After two years of work, the city's Problem Properties Committee appears to have spent too much time wringing its hands in frustration and too little time taking corrective action.

In a series of reports beginning today, the Mail Tribune news staff documents some truly horrifying conditions in rental units around town. The stories also describe the lax oversight exercised by the city.

Taking action isn't easy, but it shouldn't be impossible either.

Understaffed and overworked inspectors, inconsistent enforcement of basic standards and absentee landlords who can't be served with complaints are just a few of the obstacles facing city officials. Add to that the reluctance of many tenants to complain about conditions for fear of eviction and the result is a recipe for continued abuse of often low-income people by unscrupulous and inattentive property owners.

The one positive step taken so far by the Problem Properties Committee is a recommendation that the City Council require all landlords to buy a business license and register with the city. The committee made the recommendation to the city's Housing Commission in June, but so far the commission has taken no action and set no date for doing so.

Further delay is simply unacceptable.

— Presently, only landlords who own at least five rental units are required to register. But those owners are likely to be local, or at least to have hired a local property management company.

City staff research indicates that half the owners of local rentals live somewhere else. Often those owners provide only a post office box or the name of a trust. That's useless to an inspector who wants to serve a legal complaint, which must be done in person.

If the fee is causing anyone any qualms, make it a small one. But at the very least, the city should immediately require anyone who wants to offer housing for rent in Medford to register their name and their location with the city.

Beyond that single recommendation, the Problem Properties Committee seems to have become the Part of the Problem Committee.

Inspecting rentals would seem reasonable, but not to some members of the committee, who believe inspecting rentals would be too time-consuming for city staff.

OK, hire more staff. Or require landlords to do their own inspections, as some cities do.

No, says City Councilman and committee member Jim Kuntz, that would just burden the good landlords with unnecessary paperwork, while allowing the bad landlords to simply lie on their inspection reports.

Of course, Kuntz' perspective could be colored by his status as a landlord and a vice president of the Southern Oregon Rental Owners Association. Is it any wonder that he's reluctant to put additional burdens on landlords?

Others say if the city cracks down on bad landlords, poor people will lose affordable housing. That's like saying you can't crack down on a meth dealer because he's supporting a family.

It's easy to come up with reasons to do nothing. For city officials who go off to their nice offices and their nice homes, it's easy just to let the problem slide. But, like it or not, they were elected or hired to solve problems. They have a big one, right here in their city. It's time they stepped up and dealt with it.