oranororangepRon Folgerarty.ogeparty.org


Samuels or me, who is the more "callous"?

by Bill McGaughey

As a long-time landlord in Minneapolis, I recently had the opportunity to talk with City Council member Don Samuels about the city’s housing policies. What struck me was how different our philosophies are. Yes, there is over-priced, poorly maintained housing in the city, as there are shoddy products of every kind. My opinion was that the free market could deal with this situation. If a tenant occupies sub-standard housing, the proper remedy is to look around for a better situation and then move. Samuels called me “callous” for expressing that opinion.

In his view, city government is needed to guarantee the quality of housing stock. If a rental property is deemed substandard, city government needs to use its inspections powers to close the property down. Indeed, at the hearing where the conversation with Samuels took place, a committee of the City Council voted to close down sixteen buildings because of problems in two of them. Samuels is quoted in a Star Tribune article that the Council’s vote will “send a message that you (the private-sector landlord) will have to keep properties in good condition with good conduct or you will not be able to rent in Minneapolis.”

Residents of Minneapolis should have a discussion on whether or not they want city government to have those sweeping powers. Is it the function of the city’s inspections department do decide whether a particular property is kept “in good condition” and exhibits “good conduct”? Does the public expect it to be a consumer-watchdog agency on steroids?

I take a narrow view of the subject. The legitimate function of inspections is broadly to ensure the health and safety of the public. Given limited resources, property owners should be held to reasonable standards. Zero tolerance is not an option.

In my opinion, fire is the main building-related safety threat. Several years ago, a fire swept through an apartment on east Lake Street, killing several persons. The building had not been inspected in sixteen years. This was a failure of both the building owner and the city’s fire-inspection managers. If inspections could make sure that the major hazards are covered and not try to micromanage rental-property businesses, we would all be better off.

Council member Samuels referred to a duty of rental-property managers to make sure that there is “good conduct” in their buildings. In other words, landlords have to police their tenants’ behavior or they may lose their rental licenses. This is a function which government in all its splendor and power cannot perform.

Buildings do not engage in misconduct; people do. If there is conduct which significantly threatens the well being of other persons, laws should be passed making such behavior illegal. And if persons are found to have engaged in illegal activity, it is the responsibility of the city police - not property managers - to identify the law breakers and perhaps arrest them.

Instead, the Minneapolis City Council has passed an ordinance (244.2020) holding rental-property owners accountable for the behavior of their tenants. So if the police cannot ensure that the city remains crime free, we assign this duty to the owners of private businesses. City government does this not because it is right but because it can.

In his discussion with me, council member Samuels said that he lived on a block filled with slum properties. He had a stack of letters from neighbors complaining about the situation. Since Samuels heads the City Council committee overseeing the police, I would suggest that he look first to the police in combatting unlawful behavior. If the behavior is bad but not unlawful, the Council might pass an ordinance making such activities illegal. However, the ordinance should be directed at the persons engaging in the behavior, not the owners of buildings where they live.

“ Neighbors” should be respected but they do not have an unchallenged right to get local government to punish someone they dislike unless that person has broken the law. Unfortunately, city politicians encourage people to complain about their neighbors (especially landlords and their tenants). Words such as “absentee landlord”, “slumlord”, or “problem property” are frequently bandied about. That’s how city officials do their politics.

Instead of engaging in the politics of hate, Minneapolis officials need to work cooperatively with the owners of businesses to reduce crime and create an environment where both businesses and people can thrive.

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