Suburbs crack down on problem landlords, homeowners

  • Article by: SHANNON PRATHER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 27, 2014 - 6:04 AM

As they start to show their age, Roseville and Burnsville are ramping up efforts to improve rundown properties and prevent problems in the first place.

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For its inspection program, Burnsville does drive-by checks every three years of all properties, including businesses and single-family homes like this fire-damaged one.

Photo: Photos by DAVID JOLES • djoles@startribune.com,

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The more than 4,000 apartments in Roseville have never faced regular municipal inspections, but that’s about to change as the suburb responds to some troubling signs.

Some apartment buildings are so rundown that school social workers making home visits called the city to complain. Police also saw a surge in calls to a few complexes, with officers reporting bedbugs, broken-down units, uncooperative tenants and “flophouse” conditions.

“I think the good citizens of Roseville aren’t aware of these things occurring. It’s happening more and more,” police Lt. Lorne Rosand said.

Now the city of 34,000 known for its shopping and established, safe neighborhoods will be licensing and inspecting all complexes with five or more units. The idea is to take a “proactive” approach — to prevent problems in addition to reacting to them.

To the south, Burnsville has been ramping up its own inspection programs as it sees signs of wear and tear. The two cities, along with other suburbs starting to show their age, are moving to keep up curb appeal, to stay fresh and avert decay.

“You have to think long term. It has to be more than guns and hoses,” said Burnsville’s code enforcement manager, Christopher Forslund, referring to police and fire services most often associated with city government. “You have to maintain your standard of living, too.”

In Roseville and Burnsville, the great majority of residents support the cleanup programs, officials say.

Roseville had considered adding rental regulations for nearly a decade. But leaders didn’t see a pressing need until now. “We knew the multifamily apartments in Roseville were going to be an issue because of their age. Most were built in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. It was on our radar screen,” Mayor Dan Roe said.

Calls from the school district and the police’s concerns pushed the City Council to act. “That’s when we decided we need to take some action and be more proactive on our multifamily units,” Roe said.

The rental inspections, with a “neighborhood enhancement program,” will save the city money in the long run by “solving problems … before we have a crisis,” he said. “Nothing is inexpensive when you are dealing with it in crisis mode.”

Rosand said residents would be surprised at some of the rental conditions just blocks from their homes. A few apartment complexes, once well-maintained, have turned over ownership and tenants.

“We are finding the owners aren’t putting money back into the property when things break down and fall apart. It’s become a blight in the community and an eyesore,” he said.

At some complexes, police officers making calls ask people to meet them outside to avoid getting bedbugs on their uniforms, Rosand said.

At one complex, the owners repeatedly refused requests to repair a dilapidated garage that was later the site of a sexual assault, he said.

Under the new licensing and inspection program, apartments will be checked to make sure they’re up to code. The program rewards quality landlords: Rental property in excellent condition will be inspected every three years, properties with problems more frequently. For the most problematic: “Every six months we will be in your property,” said Jeanne Kelsey, acting head of the Roseville Housing and Redevelopment Authority.

“We tried to develop it as more of an incentive program than a punishment program,” Roe said.

Marty McDonough, director of municipal affairs for the Minnesota Multifamily Housing Association, said tiered inspection programs that reward good landlords have proved successful in other cities. It puts pressure on the minority of problem landlords.

McDonough advises his members to work with their cities. “We want our landlords to understand they have to have a good relationship with the city to be successful businesspeople. The good ones get that,” he said.

In addition to taking steps on apartments, Roseville started conducting regular outside inspections of all homes and commercial properties a few years ago. Every neighborhood is to be inspected every four years and residents notified if there are code violations.

Some people bristle at the idea of more government meddling, but many are pleased to see budding problems addressed, officials say.

Homeowners appear to be getting the message. In 2009, about 7.6 percent of homes inspected under the “neighborhood enhancement program” were found to have a violation; in 2013, the number was 3.5 percent. Citizen complaints about neighbors’ houses also fell, from 736 in 2009 to 425 last year.

The Burnsville experience

Burnsville, a city of 60,000, has wrestled with similar issues.

“We’ve had many complaints from our residents about different maintenance issues around the city,” Mayor Elizabeth Kautz said. “We had very big issues with one of our rental properties. They had so many code violations we had to really come down hard.”

Burnsville launched its new inspection program in January 2013. All of the city’s nearly 8,500 rentals, including apartments and single-family homes, are licensed and inspected inside and out.

In addition, all properties, including single-family homes and businesses, undergo a drive-by inspection on a three-year basis.

“When your city ages, you want it to age gracefully and also to make sure our property values are maintained and enhanced,” Kautz said.

Since the program started, the city has sent hundreds of letters to property owners pointing out code violations and calling for corrective action. In one manufactured-home community, 304 out of 318 residents were notified of violations last year. The city also has discovered and taken action against more than 30 hoarding houses.

The most common violation is trash containers visible from the street. The city issued letters for 635 trash can violations in 2013 and 294 this year. Other common violations: illegal exterior storage; illegal exterior structures; weeds above 8 inches tall; campers or trailers illegally parked in yards; peeling paint, and unregistered vehicles parked in driveways.

Violators are sent a letter. Failure to comply results in a second letter and a $110 re-inspection fee. Residents who refuse to cooperate will receive a criminal citation and court date. Most people comply. In 2013, 48 citations were issued.

The key to the program’s success has been that nobody is above the law and everyone faces inspection, Forslund said. “If you are going to have an enforcement program, you have to be uniform and consistent.”

Ted Oakland, armed with an iPad and camera, is the face of the Burnsville program. The city’s proactive enforcement officer, he slowly drives the neighborhoods, checking for violations and following up on open cases. He drives by a boarded-up, fire-damaged split-level in an otherwise tidy neighborhood. The fire happened in February. He’s been checking with the owners to make sure they’re scheduling a teardown. Before the inspection program, some such homes sat for years.

Driving by another home, he points to a small trailer parked on the side lawn. That’s a violation. Another home has a dozen cars on the front lawn and driveway. The owner is suspected of running a used-car sales operation from his home. Oakland is on the case.

In one yard, there’s a curious sculpture and a grouping of wagon wheels. That’s all right. “You can’t regulate taste,” Oakland explained.

He said most people are cooperative so long as their neighbors are held to the same standards.

Still, the new crackdown doesn’t sit well with everyone.

Don Scholz got a letter that his large gravel driveway was a city code violation. He said it was like that when he bought the home four years ago.

“We’ve done nothing but fix up the place since we bought it,” he said. He has replaced the roof and built a new garage, all with the proper city permits. No one said a word about the driveway until now.

“It should have been addressed long before I bought it,” Scholz said. “I am not trying to cheat the neighborhood, but it’s the way the house was when I moved in. I can understand why they have rules, but it’s a weird deal.”

Paving it would cost between $10,000 and $20,000. Scholz said he’s working with the city on a solution.

 

Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804

 



 

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