Rental rules stir debate

FAIRMONT – City Hall was packed Monday night with people for and against a proposed rental ordinance.

The forum precedes another public hearing on the ordinance slated for Feb. 10, after which the City Council can vote whether to accept, deny or table the regulations.

“This is a starting point,” said Mike Humpal, city administrator, who gave a brief background of the subject.

On Oct. 22, 2012, a grassroots group called Focus on Fairmont addressed the City Council about the lack of rental housing code. The council, in turn, directed staff to look into developing an ordinance.

According to Councilman Joe Kallemeyn, thorough research was conducted in the past year to draft the proposal.

“This is not just something we jumped into in the past three weeks,” he said.

Kallemeyn encouraged local landlords to consider forming an association that could police itself and address some of the concerns that led to talks of a rental ordinance.

“I don’t think we need a lot more regulations in this town, state or country,” he said.

His sentiments were echoed by Councilman Terry Anderson, who wants to see Focus on Fairmont and local landlords reach an agreement: “It’s clear to me both sides have valid issues and valid concerns. … I think we’re strong enough and smart enough to come up with something that works for everybody.”

Following are some of the points presented by each side on Monday:

o Crime control

Ron Davison, a homeowner in Fairmont, painted a scenario of a neighborhood plagued for two years by nuisances and criminal activities, all of which were based out of a rental property.

If the proposed rental ordinance was in place, Davison believes the police would have notified landlords of the crimes, and the issue might have been handled in a more timely manner, also prompting the landlord to be more careful in the future when selecting tenants.

Situations like the one Davison described in detail aren’t isolated to his neighborhood, which worked as an argument by both sides.

Landlord Chuck Omvig cited a similar problem in his neighborhood, but the guilty party in this case was a homeowner.

Landlord Neil DeVries concurred: “There are plenty of drugs going out of owner-occupied homes. It still takes a long time to get something done. It’s not any faster getting somebody out of an owner-occupied house than rental property.”

Landlords noted they legally cannot discriminate against someone because of their criminal background, but more than one landlord did say they would appreciate a call from the police if a crime was committed on their rental property.

o Cost

Repeatedly, landlords voiced worries about the cost of implementing the ordinance.

Omvig encouraged the council to think of landlords as “housing investors,” noting that landlords pay higher taxes, create jobs and provide low-cost housing. He cited a recent housing study in Fairmont that found a large percentage of Fairmont households pay more than 35 percent of their income for rent.

“Investors would love to update all their properties, but then we would have to charge higher rent,” Omvig said.

Landlord Doug Willner questioned the additional costs and manpower that would be needed at City Hall to enforce the ordinance.

“It scares me that you’re thinking about doing this without knowing the proposed costs involved,” he said.

His colleagues also worried about the ordinance’s requirement that landlords be responsible for garbage, lawn maintenance, etc. The cost of providing those services would have to be passed on to tenants, they said, and many of those tenants are already struggling financially.

Councilman Chad Askeland later disputed this last point. He asked how many landlords were left with a garage full of garbage when tenants moved out. Many in the crowd raised their hands.

“Now how many of you provided garbage services?” he asked.

Fewer hands went up.

Askeland suggested landlords include the cost of garbage removal in the rent: “The tenant will either pay that money to you or Waste Management. Either way, they have to pay it.”

o Redundancy

“Quite frankly, I don’t think your ordinance covers anything that isn’t covered by existing law,” said Ken Krueger, who owns numerous rental properties in Fairmont.

In his queries of other cities with rental ordinances, he found no cities where the landlords were happy with the regulations. Most said it was costly and ineffective.

Omvig presented the council with a booklet filled with hundreds of state statutes on landlord/tenant rights, which he said takes care of all the problems Fairmont’s ordinance tries to address and many more.

But proponents of the ordinance defended the need for such regulations in the city rulebooks.

Steve Hawkins, of the Focus on Fairmont group, pointed out that Minnesota Multi-Housing Association actually recommends cities adopt rental regulations and provides a manual for guidance in creating an ordinance. He also cited the recently conducted housing study, which recommended rental inspections after identifying a number of “substandard rental units.”

“It’s just time we brought rental housing standards up to code, for renters’ sake and the city as a whole,” Hawkins said.

Even those in support of a rental ordinance agreed, however, that Fairmont’s proposed rental code needs tweaking before it is considered.

“Vague” was often used to describe the document, a factor that made many landlords in the audience uneasy.

“You have no specifics in this whole ordinance,” said landlord Tony Scheff.

Landlord Shawn Clow noted the ordinance uses the word “deficiency” frequently, but “what are deficiencies?” he asked.

Councilman Wes Clerc thanked everyone for attending the meeting, in order to give the council both sides of the story.

“It’s an educational process,” he said. “If it’s not broken, we don’t want to fix it.”

He also added: “There’s a tone out there that this is the city trying to screw the landlords. That’s not true. We’re trying to do what’s best for Fairmont.”