New Jersey is about to make its rental units less safe.
That will be the result of a bill approved recently by the state Senate and headed to the Assembly. The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, would prohibit local municipalities from carrying out routine periodic inspections of apartment buildings.
The measure is being promoted as a way to eliminate unnecessary costs for landlords. What it actually does is endanger the safety of our most vulnerable citizens. The poorest members of society, those who have no choice but to live in the cheapest buildings - which are also the oldest and most dangerous - will be most affected by this.
Proponents of the bill say they are merely eliminating duplication and that state inspections of apartments buildings are adequate to ensure safety.
But local officials have a better idea of the condition of their housing inventory than the state possibly can. They are more likely to be aware of a building's history and its problems. And municipalities are far more likely than the state to conduct inspections in a timely manner.
Robust inspections are an effective tool for helping to maintain the quality of housing stock in cities and for holding absentee landlords accountable for the condition of their buildings.
In 1990, a family of five died of carbon monoxide poisoning in an Atlantic City apartment building. The poisonous gas entered the family's apartment because a water heater had been improperly installed with a defective flue in violation of the building code.
The defect wasn't caught in any state inspection of the apartments.
A trial revealed that an owner of the apartments had bribed a local inspector several times to overlook the problem. Tragedies like this would be more likely to occur under this legislation, which no matter how you feel about it, obviously would result in fewer inspections.
The New Jersey Apartment Association, a landlords' group that is pushing this bill, says some cities are using the inspection fees to generate revenues, rather than ensure safety. If that's the case, it might make more sense to impose limits on what municipalities can charge for inspections, but it makes no sense to eliminate those inspections.
Mayor Eldridge Hawkins of Orange was right when he told The Star-Ledger, "This legislation will almost certainly guarantee that people will live in substandard housing."
Local inspections of apartment buildings are necessary. This bill is not - and it's dangerous.