The Maplewood City Council may try to combat rental homes or apartments with chronic drug and nuisance complaints by requiring landlords to be licensed by the city.
Council members are still ironing out the details of the licensing process, but intend to set up basic standards for rental units that would include annual inspections, fees and potential penalties for the owners of problem properties.
"We want to take a carrot and a stick approach, but right now we really only have a carrot," said Mayor Nora Slawik. "We don't have any teeth to get landlords to work with us to clean some of these places up."
The city would charge landlords between $100 to $300 a year per building they rent and between $30 and $60 for every rented unit in that building. That would cost some of the larger apartment complexes in the city several thousand dollars a year while the landlord of a single family home would pay about $300.
The City Council's goal is to make the program cost neutral — to pay for the costs of inspections and added staff through the landlord fees.
Council Member Bryan Smith said the license program would help Maplewood catch up to other cities in the area that have codified standards for rental housing and set up similar programs. Maplewood's proposed program is modeled after similar ordinances in Columbia Heights, Brooklyn Park and St. Paul.
The licenses help police start a relationship with landlords, said Scott Nadeau, Maplewood's public safety director, who was police chief for nine years in Columbia Heights.
"In Columbia Heights, we were able to work really close with them and hold quarterly training sessions where judges would come in to talk about working through an eviction or how to do an effective background check," Nadeau said.
The license provides a tool to compel landlords to do the right thing, Nadeau said. "When it's a question of violence or drugs it helps us work with the manager to make sure a property is safe."
Brooklyn Park has been licensing landlords for about 15 years and has found that the compliance process works best when it is not adversarial, said Curtis Raymond, property maintenance inspector.
"A lot of times you can work with them rather than use the full weight of the city to get compliance," Raymond said.
The fees in Maplewood would be used to hire a new police officer and two new inspectors — one for building codes, one for fire codes.
But Shane LaFave, director of multifamily development for Sherman Associates, which owns 107-unit Frost English Silver apartments in Maplewood, said new fees could discourage rental housing in the city.
"It depends on the amount," LaFave said. "It's not something that we typically see in other cities where we operate. But we have a good relationship with the city and it's something we'll keep our eyes and ears on."
Landlords may also be required to keep a background check of all tenants on file and have those tenants signed to written leases.
If police or inspectors find the rental property is kept in unlivable or dangerous conditions, they could fine the landlord or revoke the rental license. If the home is regularly the site of crime, the landlord could lose his or her license.
The threat of fines could make some landlords more willing to clean up properties and make sure they are kept drug free, Slawik said.
"This will give us some much needed leverage," she said. "We have some residents who are frantic about a house or two in their neighborhood where they see crime or drug activity going on and we just can't seem to get anything to happen."
It could be several months before the council brings the proposed license to a vote; public hearings are tentatively planned for the spring.