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West St. Paul council agrees rental inspection rules are ‘broken’
Shocked at rundown properties, council kick-starts revamp
With more and more tenants complaining about conditions at the homes they rent, the West St. Paul City Council at its July 14 workshop directed staff to address gaps in the city’s housing evaluator guidelines.
Rental owners are required to submit a third-party inspection report with their rental license application before the city grants them a license, according to city documents. But the lax, outdated guidelines for those inspections have left major issues and city code violations unrepaired in primarily single-family homes, but also a few apartment complexes, citywide for years.
It’s unclear how many units are in disrepair due to the current guidelines. Although, according to city staff, almost half of the issues found in inspections of a small sample size of various rentals were below minimum standards. But the current regulations don’t require such issues to be fixed, unless they’re deemed a hazard.
“The guidelines are broken,” council member Dave Napier said.
Jump in rentals, issues
The city implemented the current guidelines in July of 2007, the first year rentals were licensed in the city. Since then, rentals have grown from 255 licensed rentals to 445 rental buildings so far in 2014, according to city staff.
Since 2013, city staff has seen an increase in calls from residents requesting inspections of rental properties, according to city documents, although an inspector not employed by the city already gave the OK on these properties.
According to staff, around 10 tenants have called about issues that the building official thought warranted another inspection. Many more tenants have called to gripe about conditions that didn’t require follow-up.
What staff found in the repeat inspections appalled city leaders.
‘Dismayed’ at conditions
At the workshop, Mayor John Zanmiller and the council discussed photos from an apartment inspection in November of 2013. The images capture torn-up, water-stained drywall, slivering boards with protruding nails and exposed studs, electric wires and water pipes.
“When I saw these pictures, I was very dismayed we even granted a license,” Zanmiller said. “Gaping holes with exposed electrical is unconscionable.”
Council member Dick Vitelli said the house is not fit for occupancy, although people do currently live there.
“Clearly, you shouldn’t live in something like that,” Vitelli said.
But none of those crumbling features in the unit were among those the evaluator deemed a “hazard,” a designation that requires the landlord to fix the problem and have the work confirmed by another inspection. The city’s guidelines say those issues are “below” or “meet” minimum standards, and don’t force the landlord to correct them.
Because the written guidelines the city has issued for inspections no longer align with its residential code, such structures can violate city construction and housing standards, but still get rental licenses.
“They’re not meeting building codes, but they did meet the inspection,” said Ben Boike, city planner and assistant community development director.
Back up to code
In its recommendation, city staff urged the council to make the guidelines more stringent, so they require what’s in the city’s building and housing code.
Another option would be to hire a full-time inspector to replace the third-party inspector, allowing for more accountability and city oversight in the evaluations.
Considering the 443 licensed rentals last year and the current frequency of inspections, staff estimated the new staffer would inspect 881 units each year just in initial inspections. Follow-up inspections aren’t included in that total.
Bringing inspections in-house would also bring in revenue from inspection fees, ideally offsetting the cost of the new employee, according to city documents.
Hold landlords accountable
Another option staff proposed: Hold landlords more accountable.
To help accomplish that, staff recommended strengthening the Safer Tenants and Rentals Program by making training and plans to mitigate crime mandatory.
Program criteria include having property owners provide a copy of background check procedures, pursue the eviction of non-compliant tenants and attend landlord organization meetings. Right now, it’s voluntary for rental owners to participate.
The incentive? Fines for violations cost less for program participants.
Zanmiller said he also wants to see a defined process for handling tenant complaints.
“We’re not responsible for the maintenance of the building,” he added. “It really boils down to whether we give a license or not.”
Vitelli said it makes sense to give homeowners some leniency, because they live in what they own, ramshackle or not. But rental properties are another matter — tenants are at the mercy of the landlords.
“If it’s a rental property, I think it should be held to a much higher standard,” Vitelli said.
The council directed staff to first get rental owners in the loop by working with the Responsible Owners and Managers Association.
The property owners’ input will be considered as staff members draft a new approach, which may be ready for the council’s consideration this fall. Any changes would go into effect in 2016.
Zanmiller said the city needs to be harsher with its guidelines and its landlords. He said housing conditions become a “dignity issue for both the community and the tenants.”
“We need to step this up,” he said. “Quality housing is a cornerstone of a healthy community.”
Kaitlyn Roby can be reached at 651-748-7815 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at twitter.com/KRobyNews.