Imposing fines is not enough to stop landlords from violating codes

I’m going out on a limb here to say this: I don’t think every landlord is evil. There must be some real gems out there who fix problems quickly after a request, who do not overcharge while forcing students to over-occupy and who have few, if any, violations. I want to believe these people exist.

But I don’t hear much about these guardian angels. Instead, I hear students tell horror stories about landlords stealing security deposits. My friends complain their landlord doesn’t fix problems even after months of requests. The records show some collect code violations like trophies.

Maybe we see more evidence of the bad landlords than the good ones because the current penalties are absurd. Today, landlords pay small penalties for code violations. Often, it costs less to pay the fine than to fix the problem. Landlords who collect rent from hundreds of people a month can easily afford to toss a little money to the government when the alternative is spending as much or more to fix the off-campus housing problems that earned them the fines.

This cycle of fines-inaction-fines-more inaction has turned the government into just another bad landlord. It collects fines from the landlords who are not fixing the housing violations and continue to ignore the problems, allowing them to collect more “rent” (fines) in the future. We need to break this cycle that moves money around without applying any of that money to fixing the problems.

Of course, we could increase the fines landlords pay for code violations. But, the big fines needed to scare the worst offenders into fixing problems are only possible under felony charges.

Instead, we should apply a penalty that will actually solve the problem. Once a landlord has more than three code violations to the same property during one tenet’s occupancy, the state should revoke that landlord’s license. Code violations range from small, such as for chipped paint, to quite large, such as severe safety problems. Students can give their landlords such violations through the housing inspectors. Because such a penalty would be much more costly than fixing problems, all landlords who can do the math would see that problem-solving rather than fine-paying would be in their best interest.

Such a penalty change would be effective without being harsh. Only a few landlords collect more than three violations because the process is long and arduous. Students often do not go through the process of giving their landlord code violations because they see their stay in those homes as temporary and do not want to put effort into something that won’t be fixed until after they’re gone.

Action is being taken throughout campus, though, to help students speak up for themselves and take full advantage of their rights. The Minnesota Student Association has put forth numerous resolutions under Project Lighthouse, which calls for everything from restructuring University Dining Services fees to putting stricter penalties on landlords. Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, a nonpartisan political organizing group on campus, is holding a renter’s rights forum at 4:30 p.m. today in room 323 at Coffman Union and has a task force dedicated to housing issues.

Unlike so many abstract political ideas many groups on campus tackle, this issue is palpable and winnable. There are only a few people who would surely vote against this idea on the Minneapolis City Council, and the University administration seems receptive to ideas on improving its own housing. The key is to become involved. This issue will affect anyone planning to live off campus. We must grasp the problems and not let go until they’re gone. The only other alternative is to hope for one of the rare guardian angel landlords to watch over you.

Kyle Potter is a sophomore, co-chairman for MPIRG and an at-large representative to MSA. Send comments [email protected]