State Rep. Stacey Campfield is back in the news. Only this time, it's not due to some publicity stunt or politically DOA piece of legislation like last year's bill requiring death certificates be filed for aborted fetuses. Instead, "The Rep," as the lawmaker likes to style himself, faces some potential legal trouble of his own.
Campfield, a staunch "property rights" advocate, came under fire last week after the city condemned one of his rental properties. The condemnation, however, didn't have anything to do with the sort of eminent domain proceedings Campfield made a cause celebre awhile back. Campfield, among the most outspoken defenders of McClung warehouse owner Mark Saroff, even introduced another non-starter of a bill back then, one that proposed restricting "blight" to properties the condition of which "causes the risk of immediate physical harm to people or other property."
Therefore, I was somewhat amused to read the other day that one of Campfield's rental houses had been written up for 47 code violations, including a "basement flooded with water and feces" and "bootleg wiring." Campfield, his tenants allege, has also been pumping the wastewater flooding the basement out onto public sidewalks and into a storm drain. Campfield's property, it appears, may meet even his own definition of "blight."
Confronted with the allegations, The Rep retreated to the age-old recourse of landlords everywhere and blamed the tenants. He also "reckons" he'd spent around $20,000 on repairs to the property prior to the tenants moving in. If that's the case, I hope the lawmaker pulled permits, as the law requires.
In Campfield's defense, college students aren't always the best of tenants. And the housekeeping of this particular bunch, if the photos that accompanied the News Sentinel story are any indication, does leave much to be desired. But does that reflect very well on The Rep's skill at rental management? Here's a hint, Stacey: Screen your tenants. I'm surprised, frankly, that he hasn't already learned that lesson. It hasn't been too long, after all, since the revelation that The Rep was renting a room in his own house to a registered sex offender.
But does a single condemned house make Campfield a slumlord? The term has certainly been tossed around—liberally, you might say—in the online comments accompanying the Knoxnews.com article on the condemnation. While some things match, such as dragging your feet and casting blame if the tenants complain or the city condemns the place, I'm not sure Campfield quite fits the slumlord mold. Sure, he's generally careful to avoid buying rental property within the district he represents. It wouldn't do to have constituents complaining about his college-kid tenants next door. But he's not exactly "slumming" when it comes to buying property. His now-condemned house would have cost him a good deal less than the $60,000 he spent on it if he'd bought somewhere other than the fringes of Old North Knoxville.
But in a less expensive 'hood, would Campfield have been able to convince some college kids to shell out $1,600 a month to rent it? Housing vouchers, the most likely alternative source of tenants (often paying above what a property would bring on the open market, since the voucher's worth is calculated on a metro-wide average), would perhaps be problematic for a diehard conservative like Campfield.
So in order to bring in that $1,600 per month, Campfield had to invest in an area students would be willing to live in (and, perhaps more importantly, somewhere their parents would allow). In that light, The Rep's portfolio of rental property on the fringes of historic neighborhoods such as Old North, Fourth and Gill, and Mechanicsville makes perfect sense. Politically, the property rights advocate has been more than happy to bash the "hysterical preservationists" whenever it's expedient. But when it comes to investing his own money, The Rep is more than happy to piggyback on their revitalization efforts.