Minneapolis officials are taking a new, data-focused approach to prodding problem landlords into improving their properties.

Starting this summer, city housing staff began analyzing Minneapolis’ more than 23,000 rental properties against a new scoring system and creating a list to determine which owners need to shape up before they can get more rental licenses.

In a city where about half the population rents, the new program has already had impact.

“I have found the people that have responded … have been a little surprised by this and saying, ‘Hey, I don’t want to be one of the worst people, I don’t want to be on this list,’ ” said the city’s regulatory services chief, Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde, who has spearheaded the change.

The quarterly list now features 124 of the most troublesome rental properties in the city, based on factors such as unpaid fines, police calls, condemnation letters, delinquent taxes, substandard condition notices and illegal occupancy. The 108 property owners with too many violations must talk with inspections staff and develop a plan to fix the problems before they can obtain additional rental licenses.

Several landlords contacted by the Star Tribune said the scoring can be misleading, since, in their opinion, tenants bear a lot of responsibility.

“It’s a battle balancing between the tenants and the city,” said Mahmood Khan, who manages several properties on the list. “Because anything the tenants do wrong, it reflects back on the landlord.”

The city also is tweaking how it monitors larger apartment buildings, Rivera-Vandermyde said, such as incorporating more basic livability checks into its inspections and performing those inspections more frequently at the most problematic properties.

Traditionally, inspections of larger buildings have focused on fire safety. She said they are also bringing in more inspectors to address nuisance issues and translating tenant inspection consent forms to better reach the city’s burgeoning immigrant population.

“She’s very smart in saying we don’t need another policy passed,” Council Member Elizabeth Glidden said of Rivera-Vandermyde, who joined the city last year. “We actually have the tools. We need to make sure we’re actually acting on those tools.”

The change coincides with other efforts by some neighborhood groups to boost rental conditions, particularly in areas with large Latino populations.

Several neighborhood groups have hired organizers to go to apartment buildings and speak with residents about their problems. The Corcoran neighborhood in south Minneapolis is among those pushing for bulletin boards that would better inform renters of their rights under the law using visuals that can be interpreted by non-English speakers.

Ross Joy, an organizer for Corcoran, said the new scoring system is an improvement from the city’s past practices, which allowed smaller violations to pile up and reach a crisis point, when licenses were revoked and tenants were evicted. Joy has also discovered that many larger buildings in his area hadn’t been inspected in many years under the city’s system focused more on fire code violations than health and livability standards.

But, he added, the city still needs to better engage tenants — many of whom are still unaware of services like 311 — to help identify properties not meeting city ordinances.

“There’s a lot of data missing on basic repair issues that residents identify, and by ordinance, should be fixed in a timely manner,” Joy said.

The city’s list is intended to target properties that have been the most taxing on the city’s resources. Most of the 10 most problematic addresses are converted single-family homes and duplexes, which comprise the vast majority of the city’s rental licenses.

Fifty-six new properties were added to the list Friday, in addition to 68 properties that remained out of compliance after the last quarter. The city could not release the new addresses until property owners are informed, but only three of the remaining 68 properties contained more than four units.

Rivera-Vandermyde attributed this to the fact that most rental licenses are for smaller buildings, larger buildings often have better property managers, and there is a higher threshold for determining that larger buildings have “substandard conditions.” Buildings with more units also require more police calls to score points on the city’s metric.

The problem properties are largely scattered in four North Side neighborhoods — McKinley, Folwell, Jordan and Hawthorne — as well as the South Side neighborhoods surrounding Lake Street, between Interstate 35W and Hiawatha Avenue.

Those properties at the top of the list featured violations for unpaid taxes and fines, letters to condemn for lack of maintenance and a number of police calls. Rivera-Vandermyde said the unpaid bills are indicative of a larger issue. “For us, it tells us that you’re not paying attention to your property,” she said.

Several landlords blamed unruly tenants or nearby crime hot spots for a number of the problems.

“There are so many things … that the landlord really doesn’t control,” said Keith Malmer, who manages three properties on the list. “It’s just bad luck, some of the renters that you end up selecting, even though there’s a screening process.”

Malmer said at one property, for example, a tenant removed all the smoke detectors before an inspection to avoid paying rent.

Rivera-Vandermyde said they have winnowed down the police calls in the analysis to focus on just nuisance-related issues. But if landlords have chosen to rent to people they consider troublesome, she said, “You’ve got to take steps to do something to mitigate that, because you’re responsible. You decided to take on property management as your source of income.”

Heidi Davis recently moved into one of the properties at the top of the list on James Avenue. She discovered roaches lurking in drawers and water that poured in from the ceiling onto her bed during a rainstorm.

“I’m tired of spending money each unit I move to because landlords” don’t care, Davis said in her living room. “Everything’s cool, but when you move in the place, that’s when you find all the damage.”

One duplex on Elliot Avenue has registered 21 police calls in the past two years, as well as having delinquent taxes, unpaid fines and a letter of intent to condemn. But Rishi Ragoonanan, who lives in the downstairs unit, said tenants have been calling the police because of people who loiter at their property after visiting the nearby Chicago-Lake Liquors store.

“They sit right here on the property and they drink,” said Ragoonanan, whose uncle owns the property.

Rivera-Vandermyde said examples like that are why they want to have a conversation with property owners to learn more about their circumstances.

“If you’ve done some mitigating factors, we take that into consideration, and odds are if that’s the only issue that’s gone on, then we may take you off the list,” Rivera-Vandermyde said. “At some point, though, we want to have a conversation with you to know what’s going on.”

 

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