Columbia Heights cleans up problem rentals with landlord fines

  • Article by: SHANNON PRATHER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 26, 2013 - 4:41 PM

Columbia Heights has cut crime and cleaned up neighborhoods by holding landlords more accountable for problem tenants. Overall, the city’s crime rate is at a 25-year low.

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.

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