City buckles down on landlords

If the city approves the amendment Friday, they would be able to impose conditions of “problem” landlords.

Marion Renault

Jordan Dalluge was celebrating Thanksgiving with his family when he received an unexpected email: an eviction notice from his landlord.

While Dalluge was never actually evicted, he said he spent months battling a landlord who threatened lawsuits, neglected maintenance and ultimately kept some of his security deposit.

“As the year went on, there seemed to be more and more problems,” he said. “Any little thing that went wrong was an opportunity for him to make money.”

The Minneapolis City Council will vote Friday on an ordinance giving itself more power to regulate such “problem landlords” by imposing conditions before revoking their license to rent property.

JoAnn Velde, a manager of housing inspection who helped develop the amendment, said she expects it to be approved.

The new ordinance

The amendment would give the City Council more options in dealing with rental license holders, said Councilwoman Elizabeth Glidden, who authored it.

“[It would] put more tools in the tool basket to drive that compliance and … be able to use a hammer with the landlord where appropriate,” she said.

Revocation of licenses would be a last resort, Velde said, and would only be used for uncooperative landlords.

Bill Dane, a University Student Legal Service attorney who specializes in tenant issues, said he felt the amendment was positive for all involved.

“It works well for landlords because they no longer have to see their license being revoked as the only penalty,” he said. “There will be something in between now.”

Instead, the city would meet with landlords in violation with licensing laws and work out conditions to fix existing problems.

The city could ask landlords to submit a maintenance plan, provide 24/7 accessibility of management to tenants or post “No Trespassing” signs, for example.

Councilwoman Diane Hofstede, who represents some of the neighborhoods around the University, said the ordinance ensures the city can provide the best housing possible.

In a year, the amendment will be reviewed and further adjusted if necessary, Glidden said.

The city currently issues about 40 to 50 rental license revocations each year, Velde said.

“Our relationship with the rental industry is good,” she said. “So many of our owners in Minneapolis are responsible and take care of their properties.”

Problems with current policy

During her term, Hofstede said she’s seen renters deal with everything, from plumbing problems and safety violations to broken locks and vermin.

Former Minneapolis landlord Spiros Zorbalas had more than 2,000 such violations in five years, so earlier this year he sold his 38 properties after facing hearings with the city for rental licensing revocation.

While the high-profile case didn’t necessarily drive this ordinance change, Glidden said it highlighted areas that housing inspection could improve.

Currently, if a rental property owner is in violation of rental licensing laws, the city’s only option is to conduct inspections, issue fines, try to work out voluntary conditions or — if all else fails — revoke licenses.

And when a license is revoked, everyone loses, Glidden said. Tenants are forced to move out, landlords lose their property and the city has to clean up the mess.

Tim Harmsen, owner of Dinkytown Rentals, said license revocation happens more than it should because the standards are objective and not case-by-case.

“It wouldn’t be too hard for a guy to lose a license,” he said, “even for administrative reasons.”

Harmsen said he’d rather see an individualized approach because older housing can pose a problem for landlords.

“You can’t be objective with these old houses. A lot of the property in Minneapolis is old,” he said. “It’s difficult to make an older building reform to brand new requirements.”

Another growing problem is that a small number of landlords are buying up foreclosed properties — so many that they are not always able to properly manage them and keep them up to code, Hofstede said.

Harmsen, who manages more than 700 bedrooms in Dinkyktown, said this consolidation of ownership means if a landlord loses his rental license, a huge number of tenants would be displaced.

“There’s going to be more and more of these situations,” he said. “If you’re going around and taking their licenses, you’re affecting a lot more people.”

Renting at the U

Because of his experience, Dalluge said he questions the intentions of area landlords.

“Especially in this town, they’re all about making money and taking advantage of college students,” he said.

Hofstede said sometimes landlords prey on student renters.

“I think that students have very hectic lives,” she said, “and so landlords can take advantage of [that].”

Students rarely deal with the grave situations the amendment is meant to combat, Dane said.

“A lot of that housing that has been involved in those revocations wasn’t actually occupied by students,” he said. “Students don’t face these situations very often.”

The most common student issue in recent years dealt with security deposit refunding — an effect of the economic recession, Dane said.

“Both [for] the landlord and the tenant, money is tighter than it used to be,” he said.

He said he also helps students deal with leaks, renewing leases, subletting and poor living conditions.

“We also have some problem landlords who really have never figured out what it takes to get along with the students,” he said.

About one-fourth of USLS consultations deal with tenant issues. Students living in older houses or apartments, he said, are especially prone to running into maintenance problems.

Overall, though, he said the rental experience in the University District is positive and that the “vast majority” of student renters don’t have issues with their landlords.