Another defeat for Wilmington blight bill targeting ‘irresponsible’ landlords

It’s back to the drawing board for city lawmakers trying to force landlords to make repairs to dilapidated rental homes in Wilmington.

Apartments are seen in Hilltop west of downtown Wilmington

Wilmington aims to hold landlords accountable to tenants in neighborhoods such as Hilltop west of downtown. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

It’s back to the drawing board for city lawmakers working with Mayor Mike Purzycki to force landlords to make repairs to dilapidated rental homes in Wilmington. After years of negotiations and several votes, city council members again defeated the so-called “blight bill” in a 5-7 vote.

The measure would have changed the city’s housing code and punished landlords who don’t maintain their properties with civil fines instead of criminal charges so landlords wouldn’t be able to drag out their cases for months or even years.

“In my 24 years [on council], I don’t believe any piece of legislation has been vetted and discussed more than this bill,” said ordinance sponsor Councilman Bud Freel. He amended the bill to eliminate the possibility that homeowners could face fines and reversed a previous provision of the measure that increased the annual registration fee paid by landlords. “If we cannot get compliance to the minimum safety codes in a timely manner, we have failed these residents,” he said, urging colleagues to support the change on behalf of more than 50% of city residents who rent.

But those changes weren’t enough to convince opponents.

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Some of those opponents voted against the bill on its merits.

“The fix could end up being worse than the problem,” said Councilman Sam Guy, who mockingly referred to the legislation as the gentrification act of 2020. “The civil rights of it have never been a component of the conversations,” he said. “It’s about the road to taking people’s property. Wilmington is the city of the exploited.”

Guy and other opponents said the bill would force landlords to raise rents to pay for their fines, or have their properties seized by the city at sheriff sale. If developers were to buy up properties at such a sale, they say such a scenario could force residents out of the community.

Councilman Ciro Adams, who voted in favor of the measure, took issue with Guy’s gentrification accusations. “It’s not a gentrification bill, because you can no longer seize a person’s home for economic development,” Adams said. “Mr. Freel took everybody’s input on the thing and changed the legislation so he could get the thing passed so he could protect renters and homeowners.”

Others opposed the measure because the city council isn’t fully representing the city of Wilmington. Former Councilman Trippi Congo was removed from his seat earlier this year after he admitted in a news interview that he moved out of his district, which made him ineligible to be on council.

Councilwoman Michelle Harlee voted against the bill, even though she supports it. “We have a missing councilperson,” she said. “I personally don’t feel like we’re doing it the right way. So this has come a long way, and I support this legislation, but I also support a full council body voting on this legislation.”

The new year will bring a new mix of council members to take up the issue after what has been a rocky four years of clashes between the Purzycki administration and some council members. Among those new members is Shane Darby who will fill Congo’s old 2nd District seat.

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Congo himself will be back in council chambers because he defeated Council President Hanifa Shabazz in the September Democratic primary for council president. He’s running unopposed in the November general election. Others Congo was aligned with on council, including Guy, lost their bid for reelection last month.

Mayor Purzycki is counting on the next council to pass his bill that would help the city crackdown against what he calls “irresponsible landlords.”

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