Two first-ring St. Paul suburbs with lots of rental properties are making changes to improve the quality of that housing, and in turn are hoping to boost tenants' experience in their city.

West St. Paul and South St. Paul, both older, more urban Dakota County cities, have been creating new partnerships, setting goals and weighing ordinance updates in an effort to make things better. West St. Paul produced a detailed report this month analyzing the city's rental housing and recommending possible changes.

"We aim to help everyone in South St. Paul, not just homeowners," said South St. Paul Mayor Jimmy Francis."I think we're really working on solutions that even the playing field."

Just under half of housing units in West St. Paul and about one-third of South St. Paul units are rented, according to city and Metropolitan Council data.

In West St. Paul, the city's strategic plan aims to ensure rental housing meets community expectations, fix up existing rental properties and make certain renters know their rights. Another goal is to get renters more engaged in city events and affairs.

Many changes "are built to try to start to build trust with tenants, so they know we've got their back and we're not going to let landlords keep their license if they're behaving illegally," said Nate Burkett, West St. Paul's city manager.

Possible updates include an ordinance that would protect renters from landlord retaliation if they make complaints and another that would require landlords notifying tenants of eviction to include city contact information. Another in-the-works change requires landlords to provide the city with an updated, 24-hour contact list for emergencies; if contacts are incorrect, the landlord faces an immediate fine.

In South St. Paul, "The common catalyst that the City Council brought up a lot last year is getting more creative about code enforcement," said Michael Healy, South St. Paul's city planner.

After a couple of high-profile code issues, the city started a problem properties team comprised of various city staff, including police and fire department officials, to address code compliance at specific sites. (West St. Paul already has a problem properties team that meets regularly.)

The city is exploring hiring an in-house building inspector and overhauled their rental license ordinance to give city officials more tools if a landlord isn't managing properties responsibly. One change includes requiring every landlord that lives farther away to designate a local agent to handle issues at the property.

Robyn Gulley, a West St. Paul City Council member, said improving conditions for renters is personal for her, having rented much of her life.

The ultimate goal is to have more renter protections and engagement, she said: "It just takes a long time for these things to happen."

"More enthusiastic city voices"

The two cities' increased emphasis on rental properties and renters comes as the state has made similar changes, including in this year's legislative session, when many "new and much-needed renters protections" passed, said Rachael Sterling, housing attorney and communications coordinator for HOME Line, a Minnesota tenants' rights organization.

Recent changes include setting a minimum temperature standard for rental units of 68 degrees, expanding the list of repairs that constitute emergencies and requiring landlords to give a 24-hour notice before entering a rental unit, with increased penalties for violations.

Sterling also said she's seen "more enthusiastic city voices" lately advocating for renters and rental properties.

"We are seeing an increase in cities that are kind of stepping up and ... ensuring rental homes are safe" along with treating renters like community members, Sterling said.

Cities often have more "flexibility and nimbleness" to address renters' problems than the state does, because they can revoke licenses. A city inspector can often be a renter's best support, she said.

Renters, landlords speak out

Renters and landlords in the two south metro cities had plenty of stories about rental challenges — such as unresponsive management when there's a loud neighbor or maintenance problem — but a few expressed optimism at the cities' expanded interest in rental properties.

Todd Urbanski said he fixed up his family home in West St. Paul to rent out, but the last renters rarely mowed the lawn and their service dogs damaged the place. He now plans to sell the home. "We kind of get lumped in with the not-so-good landlords," he said. "There's sometimes tenants that aren't so good, either, and sometimes it feels like the tenants have more rights."

Lance Stariha, who rents out a single-family home in South St. Paul, said he's occasionally had to evict a renter and the process with the city is fairly "simple and straightforward" with the city's fees "not too ridiculous." He said third-party inspectors he's worked with have been professional and thorough and hopes the city doesn't hire an in-house inspector.

"To me, that always says, [this is] government finding a way to grow itself," he said. "As soon as the city gets into it, now there's no competition."

Healy, the South St. Paul city planner, said the problem properties team already has success stories, including getting an apartment building to install missing garage doors and fix a broken fence. For now, the city will keep third-party inspectors but add more oversight to the process.

In West St. Paul, Burkett said the goal is to wrap all the changes into "one big package of ordinance revisions" that will take effect by the year's end.

"The package together will be super meaningful," Burkett said.