Landlords battling culpability proposal
by Kevin Diaz

"Call it a clash of cultures: There are those who are supposed to pay the rent, and there are those who are supposed to collect it.

It’s a natural tension, compounded in the ‘90s by deepening divisions over crime, race, class, lifestyle and values.

Those tensions have grown razor-sharp in Minneapolis, where DFL City Council leaders are proposing a new rental licensing ordinance that would expand the responsibility that landlords must assume, on penalty of license forfeiture, for their tenants’ misbehavior.

Rental license revocations are rare in Minneapolis. But inspectors can write up landlords for repeated complaints of drug dealing, prostitution, disorderly conduct and other offenses.
The new ordinance would make property owners liable for the actions of anyone on their premises, whether or not the offender pays rent and lives there.

City officials say the proposed ordinance basically codifies regulations already in effect. But rental property owners consider the new responsibilities onerous.

‘It’s taking basically responsible landlords and telling them they’ve got to be policemen 24 hours a day, seven days a week,’ said Steven Schachtman, president of Steven Scott Management Inc., which owns and manages about 500 rental units in the city. ‘Guys like me aren’t going to be able to do business in Minneapolis anymore.’

When the council held a public meeting last month to discuss the proposal, scores of angry landlords descended on City Hall to register their opposition, sometimes shouting down those who disagreed.

Another public hearing was held Thursday night at Martin Luther King Park in south Minneapolis. There city officials hoped to find a more receptive audience of renters and neighborhood organizers.

It didn’t work out that way. Landlord groups such as the Minnesota Multi-Housing Association and the Minneapolis Property Owners Action Committee showed up again in force.

Council President Jackie Cherryhomes, one of the sponsors of the ordinance, argues that responsible landlords have little to fear. Since 1990, when the current ordinance was adopted to hold landlords responsible for ‘conduct on premises,’ there have been only two rental license revocations owing to tenant misbehavior.

Most landlords, she said, correct their problems by the second or third complaint they get from the city. ‘It shows we’ve been working very closely with the landlords. Only the ones who are really recalcitrant are having a problem.’

Critics say that’s why the city doesn’t need a policy singling out landlords; They already are beset by high taxes, problem tenants and cumbersome eviction laws. The last thing they need is increase legal liability for anybody who happens upon their property. It could triple their insurance rates, they say.

Dan Frolek, a landlord with 55 rental units in the city, said, ‘We talk about Minnesota nice. We’re being nice to the wrong people. Let’s put the responsibility where it belongs and not turn apartment buildings into large adult day-care facilities.’

Landowners also complain that the get-tough licensing regulations would not apply to the city’s own public housing projects, where they say crime is pandemic.

Cherryhomes has been at the center of the controversy because the ordinance arises from an unsuccessful attempt by the city to revoke the rental license of a crime-ridden apartment building at 1030 Morgan Avenue North, which is in her ward.

While the city’s licensing rules were upheld in the legal challenge, a judge found that city officials’ enforcement actions exceeded their authority. The owner got his license back. The 10-unit building has seen 65 police calls since January.

In response, city licensing officials proposed to expand their authority and hold landlords more responsible for the behavior of the people to whom they rent.

Some homeowners and renters applaud the effort. Milo Fine, a homeowners who spoke in support of the ordinance, said absentee landlords who don’t adequately screen tenants have created an environment where tougher regulations are necessary. ‘If you wouldn’t want them for your neighbors,’ he told the group, presumably made up of landlords, ‘neither do we.’

Property owners say it is unfair to put the onus of fighting crime on them. As it is, they argue, they have been resisting efforts by Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis, and others to limit their ability to reject prospective renters with records of evictions. Moreover, they said, evictions are often fought by Legal Aid lawyers and tenants’ groups, and even by the city’s own housing and development agencies.

Landlords on the council are split on the debate, which has included charges of conflict of interest. Council Member Steve Minn, who owns more than 100 rental units in the city, opposes the proposal.

Council Member Joe Biernat, who owns a duplex, is a cosponsor of the new codes. ‘It puts more teeth into the ordinance,’ he said.

The new rental ordinance also has the support of Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton. ‘It’s consistent with her position on personal responsibility,’ said her spokeswoman, Mary Pattock.

Minn and others argue that the council would be opening a Pandora’s Box of regulation and legal liability. Revoking licenses, they say, is the same as shutting down people’s businesses and creating more abandoned buildings.

William McGaughey, a North Side landlords who recently had a rental building condemned, said, ‘You’re asking us to identify drug dealers, prostitutes and people trading in stolen goods. We’re not competent to do that.’ “

Star Tribune, May 5, 1995 p. 1B

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