The scent of cigarettes and rot hangs heavy in the South St. Paul home. Furry mold grows from a bedroom ceiling. The bathroom sink has no pipe to catch the water. It simply splashes into the cabinets below.

But Lisa Snidarich, who is going through a divorce, needed a place to live with her kids, fast. So when William Bernier said he would clean up the home, she agreed to rent it for about $1,200 a month. Three weeks later, little has changed and Snidarich said she's living a nightmare.

Bernier, who is illegally renting the property, has neglected numerous other units around the Twin Cities, according to property records, city citations and tenant hot line records.

Snidarich had no idea. It is difficult to track what a landlord owns and where there have been violations. As the population of renters grows — renter-occupied residences in the metro area are up 14 percent over five years, according to 2013 census data — tenant advocates say there needs to be a central resource for renters and cities to find and share landlord information.

"There's all these things to screen tenants, right? Like if a landlord wants to get background checks you can call and see where they've rented. … But there's nothing like that for landlords," said Beth Kodluboy, director of tenant advocacy organization HOME Line.

The onus for handling troublesome landlords is on tenants, who can take them to court, or on individual cities. Most cities can only condemn or revoke a rental license for a certain property. Minneapolis has taken it a step further with an ordinance preventing landlords from having any rental licenses for five years after a certain number of revocations and license cancellations.

But if one city takes away a landlord's rental license, the city next door might have no idea.

About six years ago, HOME Line tried to work with cities to get them to share basic information about landlords in their community. That attempt fell through, Kodluboy said.

It is time to try again, she said, noting that there's more political will to support renters, who occupy about 30 percent of the metro area's housing stock, according to 2013 census data.

A troubling history

A landlord information network could have illuminated Bernier's problem properties.

He has a long history of dubious behavior, including two misdemeanors for failing to provide home buyers with truth-in-sale-of-housing reports. The state revoked his real estate license in 2009 after years of troubling conduct.

After that, Bernier, 57, said he planned to focus on being a landlord. He now has at least 22 properties. Abatement and code violation records show some of them need attention.

"You want to know all the properties I have and all the properties I work on? You have no idea how much work it is," Bernier said in a phone interview. When asked how many properties, he angrily told a reporter it was none of her business, and hung up.

A Maplewood house Bernier owns was deemed unfit for habitation in 2009. An inspection letter said he had to provide electrical service and hot water, bring smoke detectors to code and remove a propane tank in the basement.

There have been more than 30 complaints about a house at 985 Woodbridge St. in St. Paul since Bernier owned it, said Robert Humphrey, spokesman for the city's Department of Safety and Inspections.

"Files like this you usually see on large commercial buildings. This is a single-family house," Humphrey said. "He doesn't seem to understand there are certain standards the city expects from its landlords."

In 2003, St. Paul officials filed for a restraining order after employees felt threatened by Bernier. Bernier said at the time that he was making observations, not threats.

South St. Paul problems

Bernier owns three properties in South St. Paul. He has licenses to rent two of them. It took four warnings before he got a license at 220 4th Ave. N., according to the city clerk.

Snidarich said she trusted Bernier when he said he would have a rental license for the house at 405 16th Ave. N. The city recently fined Bernier $500 for operating it as a rental without a license. To get a license, an inspector must check the property.

Snidarich talked to South St. Paul Building Official Joe Heimkes about a week after the family moved in. Heimkes said he told her to call back if improvements are not made.

"We at least have to allow the landlord to make good on his promises to you, to finish up whatever he's going to do in there," Heimkes said he told Snidarich.

Bernier said he is "working like a dog to get the property in good shape for people to live in."

In the meantime, Snidarich's family said they feel unsafe around Bernier, who was convicted of assault for hitting a client with a lockbox in 2004. They've called police three times: two weeks ago when Bernier broke a kitchen window and left a threatening voice mail and twice when he showed up yelling.

Snidarich is searching for a new home. But the tight rental market makes it difficult.

"If I'd have known all this before I moved in, I would never have moved in here," Snidarich said.

Jessie Van Berkel • 952-746-3280