Joel Hanson opened up a bulging file entitled "Rental Ordinance'' and pulled out police reports on Little Canada apartment complexes where squad cars have been called up to 270 times a year.

Hanson, city administrator for Little Canada, is among dozens of suburban leaders struggling to maintain a delicate balance between laying down the law with irresponsible property managers, and cutting them some slack in an increasingly tight economy.

The city is slated to enact a rental housing ordinance later this winter, giving city officials new tools for cracking down on disruptive renters. It would require more in-depth tenant screening, regular health and safety inspections of rental properties, and a new city rental license for landlords.

"We think better tenant screening ... should lead to less calls for police service, better tenant management and safer neighborhoods,'' said Hanson, looking over the file that contained police data on problem properties spanning five years.

"There's also a tenant code of conduct, so if tenants display problematic behavior, there's a process that property managers must follow,'' he said. "And if they [managers] don't deal with it appropriately, there's a chance of losing their license.''

Little Canada is joining cities from around the metro area, such Brooklyn Park, New Brighton and Woodbury, in taking steps to curb rental problems. Little Canada's proposed ordinance is modelled after one in South St. Paul, said Hanson, but it is still a work in progress.

Significant number of renters

About half of Little Canada's 10,000 residents live in rental housing, including a growing number in single-family houses whose owners converted them to rental properties as the housing market slumped.

In this small community, police reports show that law enforcement was called to the Montreal Courts apartments 660 times in 2006, the last year data were available. Police were called to the Provinces Apartments 273 times that year; to Canabury Hill apartments 117 times and to the Grand Pre East 60 times. And there were other properties that saw dozens of squad car visits in 2006.

"We started out focusing on multi-unit housing, but with all the foreclosures, we started looking at single family residences too,'' said Hanson.

"With the large complexes, it's been more of an issue of tenant screening and so many people in close proximity, which creates its own set of issues. With single families, let's call them accidental landlords. The house may not be set up properly. There may be too many people in the house. Parking, noise concerns, overcrowding.''

Monday, city officials held a workshop with the property managers of some of the larger apartment complexes to get feedback on the plan. A key concern was the cost of the license and the cost of regularly scheduled inspections of property, especially for the large rental complexes, said Lisa Pielen, director of municipal affairs for the Minnesota Multi Housing Association.

New requirements

The draft ordinance would require property owners to hire an inspector to inspect 50 percent of their units every other year for health and safety violations. That's more often than most other suburbs, said Hanson, adding that city officials could well reduce the frequency of inspections in the final draft of the ordinance.

Different suburbs are trying a variety of approaches to curb rental problems, said Pielan, mixing and matching what works best for their communities.

Brooklyn Park and New Hope are charging fees to homeowners who convert their houses to rental units. Brooklyn Park raised fines for rental violations. St. Louis Park requires landlords to evict tenants who deal drugs, commit violent crimes or disturb the peace. Failure to do so could result in a fine of several hundred dollars.

For now, Little Canada is continuing to tweak its ordinance to make sure it doesn't violate landlord-tenant laws, and that it doesn't put undue burden on property managers and landlords. It will hold at least one more meeting with landlords and property owners before the final ordinance is nailed down, said Hanson.

Jean Hopfensperger • 651-298-1553