Rental ordinance wins approval

FAIRMONT – After months of debate, Fairmont has a rental housing ordinance.

The City Council voted 3-0 in favor on Monday. Council members Terry Anderson and Wes Clerc were absent. Had they dissented, the ordinance still would have passed.

The new regulations will require landlords to register their properties and undergo “health and safety” inspections of all rental units once every three years. Inspections by the city will cost $40 per unit, or landlords can hire a private inspector. The registration fee is $5 per unit, not to exceed $100.

Both the registration fees and the fees for the first round of inspections will be waived for existing landlords who meet a registration deadline.

Those opposed to the ordinance have repeatedly expressed concerns about the city’s cost and time to potentially inspect 1,300-plus rental units in Fairmont, but city administration does not believe there will be a problem, although the city is currently down to one building inspector. Head building inspector Pat Parsley was eligible for early retirement and chose to take it, according to city administrator Mike Humpal.

Attending Monday’s meeting were numerous residents and business owners, both for and against the ordinance.

Speaking as a representative of Focus on Fairmont was Steve Hawkins. Focus on Fairmont is a grassroots group that asked the council to consider adopting a rental housing ordinance back in Oct. 22, 2012. City staff researched other rental housing ordinances and presented their own proposal to the council in January 2014.

“Fortunately, we live in a city where new ideas are considered,” Hawkins said in his address to the council on Monday.

He noted that many other other cities have rental ordinances: “We were unique in that we didn’t have one.”

To support the ordinance, Hawkins made use of an independent housing study recently conducted in Fairmont. The study recommends Fairmont adopt a rental housing code, finding “many substandard rental units” in a windshield survey. The study also cites health and safety concerns with rental units, and potential problems with the number of homeowner-to-rental conversions of older homes, in which improvements often are not made by professionals and are sometimes subpar. The study also states Fairmont has a high number of landlords, some of whom are considered absentees.

Speaking against the ordinance was Danny Klous, representing Martin County Housing Association. The group formed after the council continued a vote on the rental housing ordinance in February. Time was given for landlords and Focus on Fairmont to work out a compromise. Several meetings were held and numerous changes were made to the document.

On Monday, Klous turned in 300-plus signed petitions by business owners, homeowners, tenants and landlords. The petition’s statement included that “the proposed rental ordinance is not a good fit for our city. I feel it will have many negative repercussions, and I wish it to be removed as a possible ordinance.”

Humpal had received 112 signed petitions earlier in the day.

Klous also read aloud a March 13 Sentinel editorial that opposed the ordinance: “The city as a whole will be a loser when landlords decide being in business is not worth the effort of maintaining units that meet ‘a minimal standard of living.’ Especially when bad tenants trash their property. When landlords quit, some housing – usually the most affordable – goes away. On the flip side, those landlords who make upgrades in the wake of city inspections are going to charge higher rents, pricing the poorest citizens out of housing.”

Also in his arguments, Klous quoted Humpal and City Attorney Libby Bloomquist, who had said that outside of inspections, the ordinance would be enforced based on complaints to City Hall. In the past six months, Klous said the city received 10 complaints, all of which were addressed.

“The complaints aren’t there to have the ordinance,” said Klous, who believes there isn’t a need for an ordinance.

“Most of the landlords in Fairmont are doing a good job,” he said, “based on what everyone keeps saying. And for those who aren’t, there are already state and federal laws on the book.”

Many residents stood up to present their case, with both sides equally represented. Following their comments, council members had their own to make.

Councilman Darin Rahm agreed with those people who said the city needs to do a better job enforcing its code, and he wants to see that change. Rahm also agreed with those who said the ordinance discriminates against landlords, when many homeowners need to clean up their properties as well.

“We need to do a better job as a community,” he said.

He also said if the cost of enforcing the ordinance outweighs its benefits, that can be addressed in the future.

Councilman Joe Kallemeyn said a rental ordinance is something he has been interested in since he first came on the council.

“In the seven-plus years I’ve been on the council, this is one of the most involved undertakings we’ve had,” he said.

Kallemeyn, who rents his home from a family member, addressed concerns that the ordinance will be expensive for landlords, who may need to bring old houses up to modern code. He does not think that will be a problem, since the health and safety checklist looks only at basic standards of living.

Kallemeyn, too, would like to see homeowners take better care of their property and existing ordinances better enforced. He proposed in the future that the council discuss having city employees make note of problems when they’re driving around town.

Councilman Chad Askeland declined to comment.

Mayor Randy Quiring, who does not vote except to break a tie, praised Focus on Fairmont for the work it has done, not only on the ordinance, but for the general beautification of Fairmont: “Their goal, like everybody else, is to make Fairmont a better place.”