They owned rental property in Columbia Heights for decades, and these longtime landlords still sized up prospective tenants on instinct and sealed the deal with a handshake.

Figure in the rise of the accidental landlord — homeowners moving on to greener pastures but forced to rent out their old places — and a new generation of landlords who invested in rentals during the downturn.

That confluence of factors was creating rental woes for the city of Columbia Heights. Pockets of aging, loosely managed rental property were generating more than their fair share of police calls for drugs, disorderly conduct and other crimes, said the police chief.

Starting in 2008, the police aimed to clean up problem rentals by holding landlords accountable. Authorities began hosting quarterly landlords forums. In 2010, the city hit problem landlords where it hurt the most — in the wallet, with $250 fines for excessive 911 calls caused by their tenants. Landlords with chronic problems were forced to partner with police and complete crime mitigation plans or risk losing their rental licenses.

Today, police say that offering education and assistance to all of the city’s landlords and taking a tougher stance with problem ones have helped cut crime and clean up neighborhoods. Overall, the city’s crime rate is at a 25-year low. Two neighborhoods with a large number of rentals have seen theft and burglary rates drop by almost half in the past six years.

“These neighborhoods are better for it,” said Mayor Gary Peterson of the city’s efforts. “It isn’t perfect. It’s a work in progress. At least we have some strength to do some things and nudge the landlords in the right direction.”

One of the oldest cities in Anoka County, the inner-ring suburb borders Minneapolis. The city’s 2,600 rental units make up about one-third of its housing. The rentals are predominantly single-family homes, duplexes and small apartment buildings. About 90 percent of the city’s rental properties are four units or less.

“In my 40 years in the business, I don’t know of another one [program] that has been as successful in rooting out problem tenants,” said City Manager Walter Fehst.

Hot spots

When Scott Nadeau took over as police chief in 2008, he started to use computerized crime mapping to identify hot spots. Two neighborhood areas with a high percentage of rentals consistently stood out: the Circle Terrace neighborhood, named after the street, and Heritage Heights, located around 40th Avenue and Tyler Street, logged a high number of police calls, the chief said.

“A poorly run rental property can really consume a lot of resources,” Nadeau said. “I saw the impact poor rental properties can have on a community. It’s something cities and police agencies across the county have had to come to terms with. How can they work more proactively?”

Nadeau sent his officers into the neighborhoods, knocking on doors and talking to residents. It became clear that some landlords’ loose management style was dragging down the whole area.

“They were having the city and police department essentially managing their property,” Nadeau said.

The Fire Department inspects and licenses rentals, but before the tougher landlord ordinances, it didn’t have as many tools to get landlords to comply.

The city has a lot of landlords — about 850. Nadeau lobbied the City Council, which passed a series of ordinances that held landlords more responsible for problem tenants and made bad landlords pay.Nadeau describes it as a two-prong approach, part carrot, part stick:

“One provides education and partnerships; there is training and help. The second prong is accountability.”

Landlords are required to provide proof of a criminal-background check on all tenants.

“We are not allowed, by law, to tell them who to rent to. If they choose to rent to someone with drug convictions or who is a level-three sex offender, we want them to do that with the full knowledge of who they are renting to,” Nadeau said.

Assistant Fire Chief John Larkin, who oversees rental inspections and licensing, said the threat of fines and mitigation has gotten landlords’ attention.

“I welcome the police involvement in working with the rental properties and getting people to play by the rules,” Larkin said. “Now you are affecting the pocketbooks of the owners, we’ve found it to be fairly motivating for people to comply.”

In the Circle Terrace neighborhood, property crimes including burglary, theft and arson were cut in half, from 90 in 2007 to 44 in 2012. In Heritage Heights, those numbers dropped from 146 to 81 in the same time period, according to statistics provided by police.

Nadeau said the goal isn’t to drive rentals from the city. He empathizes with landlords — he’s one himself.

“I am an accidental landlord in another community,” said Nadeau, who is renting out his old home. “It’s a challenge to find great renters and make sure the renters are doing what they are supposed to be doing.”

When problems arise at a rental property, police reach out to landlord. They notify the landlord of the recent police calls, offer assistance and, in cases of repeat problems, will issue that $250 fine for 911 calls. Medical calls and calls for domestic violence are never considered nuisance calls, Nadeau said. Police issued 19 citations to landlords in 2012. In most cases, that leads to resolution. For more persistent problems, there’s mandatory crime mitigation plans.

The stick

Police have started eight mitigation plans with landlords since 2010. Landlords must meet with police at least once a month and make improvements.

“Initially they are not real happy about it. They seem to feel as though the city is singling them out,” Nadeau said. “By the end of the mitigation, the landlords have seen really what the city is going for is partnership.”

So far, no landlords have lost their license after starting mitigation.

“We bend over backward to work with the landlords,” a.

But there is some blunt talk, too. Some resistant landlords will argue they have older buildings and bothersome tenants.

“They are older buildings. We get that,” Austin said. But “you can keep the grass cut, the locks working, the smoke detectors working and the garbage picked up.”

Most landlords quickly recognize they need the help, police say.

Landlord Bob Mikulak completed a mitigation plan with police. Mikulak, who lives in Fridley, has owned an eight-unit apartment building in Columbia Heights for 15 years. Police were called there over complaints about drugs, property damage, assault and noise in 2011 and 2012.

He evicted some tenants and completed mitigation in July 2012. Police helped with tenant screening and drove by his property and made sure the parking lot was clear.

“They are really dedicated to helping us landlords. They are not here to lecture us,” Mikulak said.

He said he has learned the hard way that looks can be deceiving and that background checks really do help ferret out future problem tenants.

Howard Bentley lives in a house across the street from Mikulak’s building. He called police when he heard what sounded like gunshots at the apartment about a year and a half ago.

He said he supports police efforts to better manage the city’s rental property.

“I am glad someone is doing something,” Bentley said.

The carrot

Mikulak was one of more than 50 landlords packed into the basement of the police station for the quarterly landlord meeting Feb. 13. All landlords in the city are invited to attend.

Features and topics at the forums range from ask-an-attorney to how to conduct background checks. After the meeting, at least a dozen landlords lingered to chat with Austin and Officer Terry Nightingale, the department’s community policing coordinator.

Landlord Bill Modell was also at the forum. He owns 20 rental units in Columbia Heights, as well as rentals in Minneapolis and Anoka. Property management is his full-time job, and he’s never had any run-ins with Columbia Heights police. Still, he attends the educational forums, calling them some of the best in the Twin Cities.

“This one is really on the leading edge. The do a good job, have good speakers and good topics,” Modell said. “I try to make every meeting I can.”