Rental rules controversy persists

FAIRMONT – Several sessions have now been held to work out differences on a rental housing ordinance in Fairmont, with landlords seeking fewer regulations and concerned citizens seeking more.

Things got heated at Wednesday’s meeting, particularly in regard to how the concept of the rental ordinance came about.

“It’s a crying shame the whole thing started because one neighborhood complained,” said Neil DeVries, stirring anger from Ron Davison, who lives in that neighborhood.

“The whole city complained,” Davison countered.

His neighborhood has been home to a particularly troublesome rental unit, with ongoing disruptive and criminal behavior by several tenants. Neighbors’ frustration has been directed at the landlord, whom they say failed to properly screen tenants and evict them when problems developed.

How much the proposed ordinance will help resolve such issues remains to be seen.

“I wouldn’t want anyone to have to go through what they went through,” said landlord Leland Leichtnam. “… But I don’t think this [ordinance] will do anything to help them not go through that again.”

What the pending ordinance has done, Leichtnam went on to say, is helped to create a network of his peers. The recently formed Martin County landlord association has given him useful information and made him a better landlord today.

Councilman Terry Anderson agreed the process of creating the ordinance is making people more aware of the issues. The ordinance registration, he believes, will be helpful in curbing future problems.

Davison believes the ordinance will give the city the power to stop unresponsive landlords.

City Attorney Libby Bloomquist suggests landlords add to their leases a provision that tenants can be evicted if they engage in disorderly conduct three times within 12 months. If a tenant has three documented disorderly behavior incidents within 12 months, the pending ordinance states that a landlord’s license can be revoked if the landlord isn’t in the process of evicting the tenant. A landlord would face a misdemeanor for failing to meet City Code.

“Our intent is not to charge anyone with anything,” said Councilman Wes Clerc. “Our intent is to have people be in compliance with the ordinance.”

Angela Gregory, who manages Fairmont Square Apartments, said she uses a “crime-free, drug-free” addendum in her leases, which has been effective when it comes to quickly removing problem tenants.

Wednesday was the last ordinance work session prior to the City Council meeting 5:30 p.m. Monday. The council is scheduled to call for a public hearing for April 28, when the ordinance will be voted on a second time.

The council voted in February for a continuation until April 28, and council members directed city staff, landlords and a citizens group called Focus on Fairmont to work out a compromise in the meantime. Few from Focus on Fairmont have attended these public sessions.

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When the ordinance comes before the council on April 28, many of the landlords who put in countless hours to change its wording and lessen its powers still plan to stand against the regulations. When these landlords’ concerns were brought up Wednesday, they were told to save their arguments for the council.

“How will this be enforced?” asked Danny Klous, bringing up a frequently debated topic. “Pretty much everything in here is already on the books, and it’s not being enforced.”

According to Bloomquist, the ordinance will be “complaint-driven.”

The ordinance lays out a system in which tenants can file complaints with the city if their landlord fails to fix a building problem, and the city can penalize landlords if they continue to neglect the problem. In addition to tenant complaints, the city will regulate rental housing through health and safety inspections held once every three years.

Klous was backed by his colleagues when he said he would like to see the word “rental” nixed from the ordinance: “Make this a housing ordinance.”

“Eliminate ‘rental’ if everything about this [ordinance] is for health and safety purposes,” said landlord Doug Willner.

Klous also pointed out that if the ordinance will be complaint-driven, then the lack of complaints to the city in the past six months should show there isn’t a need for such an ordinance.

“What’s the point?” he asked.

Bloomquist noted there are several points to the ordinance that the landlords actually seem to favor, and registration has been one of them. By registering with the city, landlords can easily be looked up and then notified when a problem develops at one of their properties. Also through registration, landlords can indicate if they want their contact information included in a rental registry that will be posted on the city’s website to assist people searching for living accommodations in Fairmont.

The cost of the ordinance has been one of the landlords’ steadfast concerns, and it’s not just due to the registration cost, which will likely be $5 per unit and capped at $100; or the $40 per unit inspection fees; or the extra time it will take to fill out paperwork, post the ordinance in each rental unit, etc.

Some landlords fear city building inspectors will nit-pick with older rental houses in particular, forcing upgrades that could be pricey for landlords and tenants. One of the items on the health and safety building checklist, for instance, is lighting on all stairs, inside and out.

“It could cost $1,500 to put in a light for a door no one uses,” Willner said.

Landlords also have worried that simple projects easily fixed by landlords themselves or hired hands in the past, such as changing a bathroom faucet, will have to be done by licensed workers.

To see a copy of the proposed rental housing ordinance, go online to www.fairmont.org or ask at City Hall.