Community members share concerns on rental code with Bemidji City Council
The Bemidji City Council held a public hearing on the city’s rental code during its Monday meeting, after it paused the process to amend the code to allow for more community input.
BEMIDJI — Landlords and tenant advocates alike attended Monday night’s listening session held by the Bemidji City Council to hear comments on the city’s rental code.
The public listening session came after the city council terminated its ordinance process to adopt a new rental code in December.
First presented to the council in October, the ordinance to amend the rental code had experienced several delays as councilors requested more time for review or the addition of alternative language.
One of the primary points of contention was around the definition of occupancy limits for rental units.
In Bemidji’s current rental code, which was adopted in 2011, an occupancy limit is set at four unrelated tenants for any one rental unit, while no similar limit exists for families.
Concerns over safety, equity and the potential for some buildings to house more than four unrelated tenants resulted in the council requesting alternatives for how to limit occupancy.
These alternatives, rather than being 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.
The two options including this language varied in the length of the grace period allowed for landlords to come into compliance.
However, rather than moving forward with either the original language or one of the two alternatives presented, the council elected to terminate the ordinance and begin the process again with a public listening session.
At this listening session, held during the council’s Monday night work session, several landlords and tenant advocates shared their thoughts on the rental code and how the process has gone so far.
Even in the comments, occupancy limits remained an important focus, as several rental property owners discouraged the council from pursuing the definitions that included egress windows.
“Some of these ordinances are going to create significant hardships (for landlords), particularly the windows,” said Joan Berntson, who owns rental properties in Bemidji.
Other landlords shared that they continued to have problems with the limits on the number of unrelated tenants who could live in a unit.
“The issue with having a max of four unrelated people in one unit just doesn’t make any sense to me,” shared Mark Dickinson. “If you’re all members of the same family, you can have as many as you want in there.”
Rather than limiting occupancy based on familial relations, Andrew Erholtz, president of the Headwaters Landlords’ Association, advocated for basing limits on square footage.
“The HLA supports occupancy based on the bedroom square footage, regardless of whether the tenants are related,” Erholtz stated. “Cities throughout the country are addressing housing shortage by increasing density. This is a small way to increase density by using the housing we already have that’s underutilized.”
For most tenants, however, Ben Cahill shared that the definition of occupancy limits was not their biggest concern.
“Worrying about egress windows and how many people can fit into a bedroom are not the top priority on people’s minds,” he said.
Cahill, who is a community health worker and advocate, shared that he has seen the conditions of some of the housing in Bemidji, and he encouraged the councilors to broaden their perspectives.
“There are varied, pressing issues concerning housing that I really want you all to take a creative and unique look at,” he added.
One of the issues Cahill asked the council to examine was the potential to include a ban on income discrimination in the rental code, to prohibit landlords from denying a tenant based on their use of housing vouchers or similar forms of assistance.
“There are people who need to utilize programs like Section 8 housing vouchers in order to afford to house, and there’s several properties that refuse to accept perfectly fine money because of a few extra steps on their taxes and an extra inspection,” Cahill explained.
Sandy Hennum, the former executive director of Village of Hope, shared that many tenants who have had poor experiences with landlords don’t feel safe to advocate for themselves and encouraged the council to find a balance between tenant protections and the interests of responsible landlords.
“This review hasn’t often had a benefit for some of the people that I’ve had an opportunity to work with every day,” Hennum said. “Providing stable, safe housing is too important, too fundamental to the well-being of our citizens to allow landlords to either skirt the rules or have landlords who are forced to go it alone when they have troubled tenants.”
After nine people had provided public comment, the hearing ended and those who attended were thanked by the council. The topic of the city's rental code will be revisited in future meetings.