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Bemidji City Council denies rental ban

An effort to temporarily prohibit new rental registration for single-family homes died Monday night as the Bemidji City Council voted 4-3 against the measure.

Voting in favor were Councilors Kevin Waldhausen, Roger Hellquist and Ron Johnson. Opposed were Mayor Richard Lehmann and Councilors Jerry Downs, Barb Meuers and Greg Negard.

Those opposed said they recognized that Bemidji is facing housing problems, but said they did not support a complete halt in additional rentals.

"A moratorium is too drastic of a measure," Meuers said.

Negard noted that with the Enbridge pipeline project bringing new jobs into the community, those families are going to want to live in homes, even if they do not wish to purchase one for 18 months.

"They're going to be spending their money here," he said.

Johnson, however, described the current situation as a bathroom with a leak.

"The first thing the plumber does is turn off the water," Johnson said, explaining that you could do more harm than good if you try to fix the problem without stopping its source.

He also said that three of the city's five wards support the moratorium - wards 1, 2 and 3 - and urged those who represent the entire city to support the ban.

"We're all in this together," he said.

Following the vote, Lehmann suggested that a committee be formed to encourage public input and cooperation to figure out the best method to respond to housing issues.

Lehmann supported strengthening and enforcement of the city's existing ordinances, such as its Rental Registration Ordinance and Property Maintenance Code. Named to the committee were Councilors Downs, Johnson and Waldhausen.

Downs, in explaining his opposition to the proposed moratorium, said he still was in favor of responding to concerns about blight and residents' perceived lack of pride in their properties.

"We're not against tightening up and making rental properties accountable for bad behavior and run-down (appearances)," Downs said, adding that the ordinances need to have "teeth."

The moratorium, had it been approved, would have not allowed for new rental licenses for single-family homes. Renewal licenses would not have been impacted.

Nineteen people addressed the City Council during the public hearing on the issue last month, the majority of which were real-estate agents or real-estate investors. Seventeen of those who spoke were against the moratorium; one person was in favor and one was on the fence.

The city of Bemidji, according to council documents, has experienced a 40 percent to 50 percent increase in the number of rental-occupied single-family homes since 2005.

During the public hearing last month, several opponents of the moratorium instead urged the City Council to enforce its rental codes. In response, City Attorney Al Felix drafted a memorandum, included in Monday's agenda packet, which outlined the resources and tools available to the city for doing so.

Lehmann supported the measures suggested in Felix's memo.

"We need to encourage those renting to rent (the property) as though they own it," Lehmann said.