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Stricter rules to be included in rental housing ordinance

More collaboration is needed between rental property owners, police officers and city staff in order to better enforce negligent landlords and troublesome tenants.

This was the consensus of the city-appointed rental committee which met Tuesday at City Hall.

The ad hoc committee made up of landlords, city councilors, city staff and Bemidji Police Department officials met three times in recent months to discuss the proposed revisions of the city's rental housing ordinance. The group was tasked with negotiating the proposed ordinance changes and to present a final draft to the city council.

At a city council meeting held Aug. 2, the council voted to hold off on approving the list of amendments so the rental committee could meet at least once more to negotiate the changes. The changes impact rental permits, inspection costs, off-street parking requirements, landlord training, the eviction process and code violations, among others.

The council is expected to vote on the rental ordinance at its Sept. 19 meeting.

Three strikes rule

After Tuesday's discussion, a provision that deals with the bad behavior of tenants or their guests will be reinstated into the ordinance draft.

A condition will be added that requires an administrative fine or criminal citation be issued after three "strikes," or rule-breaking incidents occur.

In addition, the latest draft will require rental property owners or managers to receive a letter of notice from the city building department each time law enforcement officials make contact with a rental unit. Officials will notify city staff members who will then send the letter to the landlord.

"Most importantly, a notification will be sent, even if there hasn't been three strikes or a citation," City Attorney Al Felix said. "We're going to endeavor to make sure landlords know what is going on at their rental properties."

Also, the latest draft requires landlords to attach an addendum, or document, to their tenants' leases that gives notice to tenants to keep drugs and crime out of the rental units.

Crime Free training

Making it a requirement to have rental property owners or managers attend a Crime-Free Multi-Housing program session was an idea that spurred from one of the first rental committee meetings.

The program, which is used in several cities in Minnesota, is designed to partner law enforcement, rental property owners, managers and tenants to keep drugs and illegal activity out of rental property.

The program uses a three-phase approach that focuses on property owner and manager training, physical crime prevention and annual personal safety training.

The latest draft of the city's rental housing ordinance includes a provision that requires landlords to attend a Crime-Free Multi-Housing class if they do not comply with ordinance rules and regulations.

At a previous meeting Bemidji Police officer Travis Amsden, who is also a member of the rental committee, said he has been trained in Crime-Free Multi-Housing and could assist in conducting the training.

City Manager John Chattin said not having both the Crime-Free Multi-Housing program and the provision on tenant bad conduct would make the ordinance ineffective.

"We need something that gives people in troublesome neighborhoods some sense that, 'Well, at least they're doing something to try and resolve this issue,'" Chattin said. "If we don't have either one in there, this ordinance would be an utter failure for the first year. I don't think we would have addressed what the council originally wanted us to address."

Rental property owner and committee member Harry Aylesworth questioned the requirement to make landlords attend the Crime-Free Multi-Housing class, stating it would do nothing for negligent landlords who would likely continue to show unchanged behavior after attending the class.

Councilor Kevin Waldhausen responded by saying "But you can also take (what was taught at the training session) and have discussions with your tenants."

Crime Free programming goes hand-in-hand with the provision on bad tenant conduct, Felix said.

"Education alone typically is not the route cities and jurisdictions go," he added. "They go hand-in-hand with the provision. It's using the education route first rather than the hammer."

Councilor Roger Hellquist said he has received calls from people who told him they think the rental ordinance would be a "complete failure" with the bad tenant conduct provision included in the ordinance.

"They want some teeth in this because they face problems year after year after year," he said. "And it's happened in my ward and it's happened a few 100 feet of my house. I'd rather see (the provision) stay in there in its entirety."

Rental property owner and committee member Tad Sonneman suggested law enforcement should be more aggressive in issuing citations to tenants who are noisy and violate city code. Committee Chairman Laura Straw, executive director of the Bemidji Housing and Redevelopment Authority, agreed.

"I think if you do hit them in their pocketbook and do cite them, I think you do make a difference rather than penalizing landlords for the behavior of tenants that you have to go through so many hoops to get rid of," Straw said.

Waldhausen echoed their remarks stating, "I'm a big proponent of 'hit 'em hard and fast,' and setting precedents," he said. "I know we want to be inviting and warm, but I'm a big proponent of setting a precedent now and you don't deal with the problems later."