BERRIEN SPRINGS — Tuesday night’s rental housing ordinance discussion in Oronoko Township brought out more than 50 people to get a first look at the township’s proposed new ordinance. 

The township has an estimated 1,000 plus rental units.

The township has been without a rental housing ordinance for more than 20 years and officials have been hesitant to touch what has been a controversial subject in the past. An ordinance approved in the 1990s was thrown out in Berrien County Trial Court in 1997 when two local landlords sued.

Tuesday’s meeting was held at the township’s public safety building and lasted more than 90 minutes. Township Supervisor Mike Hildebrand told those gathered how the proposed new Rental Safety Verification Program ordinance was developed and then went page by page through the proposal to explain the different provisions.

If enacted as currently written, the ordinance will cover both long-term and short-term rental situations and set down a registration and inspection schedule, complete with fees. The ordinance requires registration every two years for long-term rentals and every year for short-term rentals.

In long-term rental situations, a single family home would pay $100 for registration and inspection with an extra $20 assessed for every additional rental dwelling unit. Short-term rentals would pay $300 every year for registration and inspections.

Hildebrand reported that the township’s main focus is on health and safety issues and noted that the inspections will be done by two township firefighters who are trained inspectors. “Our objective is not to shut the local rental industry down,” he said. “We need it, we don’t want to shut it down. We have university students who depend on it.”

Audience questions covered a range of topics, with people primarily concerned about the fee amounts and landlords being punished for tenant actions they can’t control, and good landlords being punished along with bad ones. Hildebrand said township officials can’t target just bad landlords and must treat people equally.

Landlord and township resident Phil Merkel said he has rental units in several area jurisdictions and believes the proposed fees are higher than he’s paying elsewhere. He thought the township could come up with other ways to do inspections at a lower cost. Hildebrand said the fee amounts were calculated so that they would only cover the township’s costs.

“I’m not necessarily opposed to the rental housing ordinance, but I think it could be tweaked a little to be more workable,” Merkel said.

While some in the audience questioned the need for any ordinance or rules, township resident Eric Stoub said he has rentals in several townships and said he didn’t have a problem with the proposed ordinance.

“I love these rules,” he said. “I’m in my rentals once or twice a year. If I have a bad tenant, I raise the rent. We need people to be in the business of renting, not the hobby of renting. I’m not opposed to this at all. Landlords tell me very quietly that they like rules and like to be held accountable.”

“There’s an upside to having an ordinance,” township building official Rich Kubsch said. “If you have an inspection and can document that batteries were in the smoke detectors, that protects you the landlord from liability.”

Fire Chief Bruce Stover noted that it is all about safety. He spoke of two fires in rental homes that killed two children over the last decade. “It is tough on the firefighters, the families and the children who died,” he said. “We carry that with us. We don’t want to go through that again. If we can do this, we can accomplish something really important.”

Hildebrand closed the meeting by asking people to continue to give their input about how the proposed ordinance can be improved. No dates were announced as to when the ordinance will be formally introduced or voted on. He did mention during the meeting the possibility of having the ordinance go into effect in September.