In July, the city of Sanford enacted a rental registry program that has local landlords at odds with city officials. The ordinance, which requires all rental units and vacant buildings be registered with the city, is filled with unlawful provisions that violate the Fourth Amendment rights of Sanford citizens.
Under the ordinance, landlords are required to pay a fee for registering each rental unit they own, and no dwellings in Sanford can be rented out without first being registered with the city. The structure of the fee system is as follows:
(1) $100 for a single family property;
(2) $200 for a two family property;
(3) $300 for a three family property;
(4) $400 for a four to seven unit property;
(5) $500 for an eight plus unit property; and
(6) $100 for a mixed use property plus $100 for each dwelling unit at that property up to a maximum of $500.
Members of Sanford city administration, including community development director Ian Houseal, have pushed the rental registry program under the guise of “safer, fairer housing.” During a June public hearing, Houseal informed Sanford residents that new code enforcement officers would be going “block by block” and “building by building” to administer “proactive inspections” of Sanford rental units, seeking full compliance.
This rhetoric, coupled with the language of the ordinance itself, steps far beyond what is permitted under the Fourth Amendment.
The Fourth Amendment prevents unreasonable, warrantless search and seizures of private property, including people, homes and personal effects. This basic right is clearly violated in Sanford’s rental registry program.
The section of the ordinance concerning authorized entry for inspection reads:
“To safeguard the health, safety, and welfare of the public, Code Enforcement Officers are authorized to enter any licensed rental housing at any reasonable time for the purpose of inspecting.”
This provision allows code enforcement officers to enter any rental unit in the city without first obtaining a warrant or consent from the landlord or tenant, for the purpose of inspecting the property for code violations.
Additionally, the ordinance reads “Owner-occupied dwelling units need not necessarily be inspected.” If a landlord in Sanford lives in and owns a duplex, for instance, the portion of the building occupied by the landlord is still subject to warrantless searches without consent.
The ordinance states that anyone who fails to register a rental unit or abide by any other provision of the ordinance is subject to civil penalties and fines. Further, the city will seek an “administrative warrant” to conduct the inspection without consent.
To be clear, Maine law does not allow municipal officials to enter a building for inspection purposes without consent of the owner or occupant. M.R.S.A. Title 30-A § 4452 tells us a municipal officer may enter a property or building “with the consent of the owner, occupant or agent to inspect the property or building for compliance..”.
Despite an owner and occupant’s right to lawfully refuse entry, the ordinance allows the city to revoke rental licenses to those who resist, stripping Sanford residents of their Fourth Amendment privileges by forcing them to comply with unlawful inspections.
Prior to his recent hiring in Sanford, Houseal implemented similar programs in Lewiston and Portland. Unfortunately, this model is being duplicated across the state. The city of Waterville will take up a rental registry proposal in October, which would also implement registration fees and fines for non-compliance.
This poorly worded ordinance is sure to face legal scrutiny in the future, especially as the city of Sanford takes steps to start implementing the measure.