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Bemidji City Council drops proposed rental ordinance to start process over

Amid debates on safety and occupancy of rental units, the Bemidji City Council voted to drop its proposed rental ordinance, to begin the process again with a public listening session.

Bemidji City Hall
Bemidji City Hall. Pioneer file photo
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BEMIDJI — In an unexpected turn of events, the Bemidji City Council voted to terminate the proposed rental ordinance, which has been stalled with frequent debates and questions since it was first introduced in October, and begin the process again with a public listening session.

After the council’s last discussion ended with a request for alternatives to be provided for the restrictions on occupancy related to rental units, the council was presented with three options on how to proceed with the ordinance during its meeting on Monday, Dec. 19.

The first option was the draft ordinance as it was initially introduced to the council, which broadened the definition of family and allowed for four unrelated adults to live in a rental unit.

In their last meeting, councilors had expressed concerns over this definition, both about the potential for some rental units to house over four and with concerns about safety and its relation to occupancy.

The second and third options, rather than limiting based on familial relations, focused on safety by limiting occupancy based on whether the building had sufficient egress windows for the requested number of tenants.

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A grace period of two years for landlords to come into compliance with egress requirements differentiated Option 2 from Option 3.

Rather than proceed with any of the listed options, the council opted to begin the ordinance process again, starting with a public listening session to be held in January.

As the discussion began during the meeting, Ward 5 Councilor Lynn Eaton initially made a motion to move forward with Option 1. However, this vote failed 4-3, with only Eaton, Ward 4 Councilor Emelie Rivera and At-large Councilor Daniel Jourdain in support.

This left the two options focused on egress for the council to consider, but concerns were also raised on those and whether they had too narrow of an approach on safety.

“There’s a lot of components that go into safety, I find it interesting that we’re only focusing on one here,” said Mayor Jorge Prince. “I don’t think I can support any of these (options) right now.”

Other council members expressed a desire to hear from the public on the two egress options, and whether they would support a grace period for landlords to come into compliance.

“I just don’t want us to rush into anything,” Ward 1 Councilor Audrey Thayer said. “I’m in favor of holding a public hearing on the egress issue.”

However, to hold a public hearing on the topic, the council was informed that one of the remaining options would still have to be selected so that the subject of the hearing was clear.

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The council was not able to come to a decision and brought forward the idea of a broader public listening session. Eventually, the question of whether it would be more beneficial to begin the entire ordinance process again was raised.

This proposal was immediately opposed by Rivera and Jourdain, who argued that the process for the rental ordinance had already been extensively delayed and that starting again would disregard the efforts put in by the committee and city staff.

Despite this, the rest of the council voted in favor of terminating the current ordinance’s progress and scheduling a public listening session in January to begin again.

“It’s frustrating because we’re going backward rather than forwards,” Jourdain said. “I’m upset at this council, we’re saying that all this work put forward by staff means nothing.”

Jourdain also noted that by delaying the proposed rental code again, the council was ignoring the ongoing needs of Bemidj’s tenants.

“I’m very disappointed. I feel bad for all the people that are waiting for changes to happen,” Jourdain said. “(The ordinance) could have moved forward and we could have revisited this next year.”

Councilors who voted in favor of beginning again commented against this characterization.

“We’re asking for it to be tweaked a little bit more," Thayer said, "That’s all.”

Nicole Ronchetti is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer, focusing on local government and community health.
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