Rule broadened to tackle more problem houses in St. Paul

  • Article by: CHAO XIONG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 16, 2012 - 9:47 PM

St. Paul can now charge owners after 3 calls in 6 months.

Owners of problem properties in St. Paul won't be able to fly under the radar as easily -- or as long -- after the city broadened the scope of an ordinance designed to catch repeat offenders before problems blossom.

The revised ordinance allows authorities to charge owners after three calls in six months. The old ordinance, in place since 1995, required four police calls within a month. Only two cases had been charged under the old "excessive consumption of police services" law despite hundreds of calls.

"Nobody really wanted to use it," City Council President Kathy Lantry said of the old version, which went into effect in June.

Before, it was hard to meet the four-calls-in-a-month threshold, even if police and neighbors felt the property was problematic. With the broader criterion (three calls in six months), they can sweep in more properties sooner.

Authorities are preparing to charge the first person, a Payne-Phalen homeowner, under the revised ordinance.

"We don't get to this point very often," said officer Steve Parsons, who specializes in nuisance properties. "We are having a lot of success with it."

Parsons has worked more than 100 cases over two years in the city's Eastern District, which is the busiest in terms of nuisance calls.

Most property owners rectify problems after receiving a phone call and warning letter from police, Parsons said, adding that the goal is to be preventive. Property owners who call police on their own residents or tenants are not penalized; calls must come from neighbors reporting quality-of-life issues such as noise and loud gatherings.

Officials and police said property owners should not hesitate to call for help.

"We want people to call the police," Lantry said. "We don't want to deter that in any way."

The ordinance requires sending a notification letter when the call volume is met, and if the issues recur within a month, the property owner is charged and fined to cover the cost of police response. Fines can range from a couple hundred dollars to several thousand.

Parsons, a crime prevention officer in the Eastern District, enacted the warning phone call and letter to improve compliance.

The revisions were key in recently tackling a party house on the city's East Side, Parsons said. Loud parties involving a small number of the homeowner's friends over time turned into 100-plus, rowdy after-hours parties advertised via fliers at local bars. Several neighbors began calling police in a single night, and the trouble culminated with a shots fired call nearby.

"I believe it was a matter of time before something more serious could have happened," Parsons said.

The broader standards net more properties that escaped scrutiny in the past, said Parsons and Eastern District Senior Commander Joe Neuberger, adding that the new standards provide a more accurate picture.

But Patricia Whitney, president of the St. Paul Association of Responsible Landlords who also manages rental property in the city, said she had some reservations about the ordinance.

"I've heard nothing about the demographics and financial data and statistical data on whether this is necessary," said Whitney, who also works as an attorney, often representing landlords. "I don't think it's appropriate that landlords are expected to constantly baby-sit a person's behavior."

Landlords face the challenge of respecting tenants' privacy rights, she said, and the burden of proving lease violations if they want to pursue eviction.

"I think there's a better way," she said. "Do I have a solution? No."

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 Twitter: @ChaoStrib

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