St. Paul City Council plan would step up housing inspections

Stephanie Kudrle

After a warning last week from St. Paul fire Chief Douglas Holton and a deadly fire Saturday morning at a Minneapolis student duplex, St. Paul City Council member Jay Benanav, 4th Ward, is pushing two proposals to tighten inspections.

“We have to do something,” Benanav said. “Whether it’s Minneapolis or St. Paul, this could happen anywhere.”

Benanav’s proposals include limiting the number of student houses to roughly one per block and demanding more inspections for one- and two-unit housing.

“(Holton) was all too prophetic when he said it was a disaster waiting to happen,” Benanav said.

St. Paul housing code enforcement officer Andy Dawkins said the proposals were taking shape before the fatal fire, but he said the fire will be an impetus for council members to discuss improvements and changes to housing ordinances.

Dawkins said he also authored a proposal that would impose more requirements on rental houses and landlords. St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly will introduce the proposal at a press conference Thursday, Dawkins said.

Benanav’s primary focus, he said, is a proposal with Holton to introduce a “certificate of occupancy requirement” on one- and two-unit housing rentals.

The plan would require those rentals be inspected for hazards, brought up to date on codes and contain working fire detectors before they can legally be rented.

“All houses should go through the same inspections,” Benanav said. “Students in apartments have had inspections; it should be the same in one- and two-unit buildings.”

“He said student safety is the main priority.

Dawkins’ proposal would not be limited to students.

His plan would hold landlords accountable for code violations – making them subject to license revocation – without mandatory inspections, which can be costly.

Excessive numbers of code inspection visits or complaints about occupants’ behavior are some of the problems that could spur the city to revoke a license.

“Ideally, every single rental unit in the city should be under these inspections,” Dawkins said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have the budget to do that.”

He said limiting mandatory inspections to student housing and expanding housing codes to allow inspections when there are complaints about exterior mismanagements are also options.

Benanav’s final proposal was initially introduced last spring, but he said it is still in discussion and would take a back seat to inspections.

The proposal would limit future student housing developments to one per block – or within 350 feet of one another – allowing existing student rental houses to remain.

“Whether we move forward on that piece is up in the air,” he said. “We’ll see if we can address the same problems in a different way. … The point is to get in there before a tragedy happens.”

While some St. Paul students, landlords and residents said they were wary of any ordinance changes, Benanav said the goal is safety.

“This is not to punish students,” Benanav said. “Students have difficulties getting landlords to fix problems, and this takes students off the hook and makes the city the bad guy.”

He said Saturday’s fire was an unfortunate highlight of rental housing problems.

Benanav added he is talking with Minneapolis City Council member Paul Zerby, who represents the University area, to coordinate proposals and ordinances.

“It would be nice if Minneapolis and St. Paul had the same standards for housing,” Benanav said.