Rental ordinance begs question

FAIRMONT – There are two sides to every story, and when it comes to Fairmont’s proposed rental ordinance, the two sides are primarily comprised of landlords and a grassroots citizens group called Focus on Fairmont.

Monday was the second time the two sides have gathered since February, in an attempt to hash out their differences and reach a compromise on the pending rental rules.

Facilitated by City Administrator Mike Humpal, the group focused on six main points:

1. Registration/licensing

2. Inspections

3. Revoking/suspending licenses

4. Disorderly behavior

5. Fees

6. Health and safety.

Much of the time was spent debating inspections. Who will conduct the inspections? The city, or landlords? If it’s the city, how will its two building inspectors inspect thousands of units without hiring more staff? What will the cost of those city inspections be – especially since landlords will have to hire licensed workers for something as simple as replacing a faucet? How long will it take to complete all those inspections, and how will that affect the licensing process, since a license is contingent on passing an inspection?

“Some people are willing to live in deplorable conditions,” often because that’s all they can afford, said Councilman Darin Rahm, who supports city inspections. “… We need to look out for their best interest.”

Councilman Chad Askeland agreed there should be “a minimal standard of living.”

City Councilman Wes Clerc offered the following proposal: Existing landlords would have a set amount of time to register, 60 to 90 days after the ordinance passes for instance, after which they would be grandfathered in, allowing them to avoid inspection fees for the first three years.

They would be given a rental housing safety checklist for the initial inspection, which they would complete and sign off on. For new tenants, the landlords would walk through, sign off and have the tenant sign off as well.

Within a three-year period, a regular inspection also would be conducted by an outside source, for which the landlord would not be charged.

For new landlords or if a change of ownership would be required, that landlord would be required to register and pay for their inspection.

Single-family homeowners who can’t sell their home and decide to rent would get an exemption from the rental ordinance for 18 months. A landlord renting to a family member also would be exempt.

Humpal estimated the cost of an inspection would be about $40.

Clerc’s proposal was generally well accepted, but plenty of concerns lingered about other aspects of the ordinance.

Where will tenants go if a license is revoked, for instance if a landlord fails to pass an inspection, asked Ken Krueger, local realtor and landlord.

According to City Attorney Libby Bloomquist, if a license is revoked, a tenant will have to vacate the premises within 30 days. If the tenant fails to do so, the landlord can potentially be charged with a misdemeanor, but only if that landlord has not taken action to evict the tenant.

Before a license would be revoked, which Humpal said the city would like to avoid if at all possible, a city board would vote and pass on their recommendation to the City Council.

The city would be operating on a “three strikes you’re out” system, but landlords would not have their licenses revoked if they were in the process of fixing a problem, according to Humpal.

One landlord, Jim Ness, brought an interesting scenario to the table: A tenant breaks a door and a window, but refuses to pay to fix them. Their damage deposit has already been depleted: “Is my license in jeopardy if my tenant won’t pay?” Ness said, asking if the city planned to mediate such situations.

“You need to look at how involved you want to be,” Ness said.

Another problem landlords have with the ordinance is a requirement that a landlord’s taxes be paid in full before the city will issue a license. Krueger wanted to know why, since that requirement isn’t demanded of other businesses.

Landlord Doug Willner admitted that in past years, when the economy was tough, he got behind on his taxes. If the rule had been in effect and he had been forced to pay his taxes to get a license, he might have gone under as a businessman.

The city attorney pointed out the licensing is only required every three years: “Every three years, make sure your taxes are paid,” she said.

One item landlords would like to see addressed by City Hall isn’t in the ordinance – utilities.

“Could they not be taken out of a tenant’s name until it’s been verified by the landlord?” requested Ness.

The group will meet again to review the ordinance before it goes before the City Council.