Inner-ring suburbs beset with aging housing stock are trying new tactics to keep rental properties from deteriorating.

This week West St. Paul approved numerous changes to hold landlords accountable, improve substandard housing conditions and fill a gap in the inspection process. Officials in other cities are paying attention. South St. Paul and Maplewood are also discussing property upkeep and plan to review West St. Paul’s new policies.

The changes in West St. Paul came after increasing reports of “dumpy” homes, Assistant Community Development Director Ben Boike said, particularly small rental properties.

“We’re getting a lot of calls from these smaller complexes, from tenants saying, ‘You guys have got to see this, how deplorable these conditions are,’ ” he said. City documents show places with a hole in the garage, deteriorating walls and a broken sink.

Eventually, Boike said, the city decided that “we’ve got to increase these standards.”

But some landlords say they are being punished for a few bad actors and doubt the changes will prevent problem properties.

Richard Carlson, who owns a small apartment complex in West St. Paul, said he is offended by what he sees as the city’s assumption that “we’re not taking care of our properties, so they have to do it for us.”

Problem tenants?

West and South St. Paul, each home to about 20,000 people, are located on the southern border of St. Paul. They have some of the lowest property values in Dakota County, where the overall median home value was $223,300, according to the most recent census data.

In South St. Paul, the median home value was $171,000. In West St. Paul it was $181,600.

To try to improve the quality of the rental properties and keep values up, West St. Paul’s City Council has decided to require landlord training, implement more stringent maintenance requirements and have city staff inspect properties instead of having the job done by third-party inspectors. They will also raise or lower inspection and rental license fees depending on how many calls — to police, fire or code compliance staff — are made about a property.

“If you hold these landlords accountable and basically hit their pocketbook, they’re going to start trying to get better tenants in there,” Boike said.

Landlords said tenants also need to be held accountable.

“It’s a two-way street,” said Linda Herman, who owns two rental properties in the city. “The renters should also have restrictions that they understand.”

Herman said tenants lie about damage they caused and steal from her. She’s even had a towel rack taken off her bathroom wall, she said.

She does a good job screening potential tenants, she said, but still, “You don’t truly know somebody.”

Landlords already go through numerous inspections and are subject to market competition, said Carlson, the owner of the small apartment complex.

Surveys of landlords, conducted by the city, show many people feel the third-party inspections were adequate and are worried about the city increasing fees and standards.

“I am afraid if we go to a higher inspections level, they will fail landlords for relatively minor offenses, which may be cosmetic or trivial but will result in higher landlord costs,” one landlord wrote. “The rest of us should not suffer because some landlords are not doing their job.”

Eyes in the neighborhood

On the other side of the Twin Cities, places like Crystal and Brooklyn Park are also carefully monitoring their housing stock.

Brooklyn Park has already implemented some of the changes West St. Paul is considering. They require landlord training and have five in-house inspectors who check out properties, said Kim Berggren, the city’s community development director said.

Having city employees inspect properties is critical to monitor the pulse of neighborhoods, Berggren said.

Crystal also sends staff instead of third-party inspectors to check out rentals, Community Development Director John Sutter said. But, he added, maintaining rental properties is just one piece of the puzzle of preventing neighborhood deterioration. The city also needs to support homeowners and provide grants to help them improve their homes.

Like other suburbs that border Minneapolis and St. Paul, Crystal is full of homes that were built around the same time — post World War II — and are aging all at once.

“Crystal is largely residential,” Sutter said. “So, as go our neighborhoods, so goes our city.”