Slumlord smackdown

With a notorious Southeast landlord losing her rental license, is the city finally getting serious about slumlords?

Bamboo curtains cover the windows at 1045 SE 24th Ave., protecting the tan house from the invasion of a passerby’s gaze. The house sits solitary under the careful watch of a giant maple tree. A sign tucked neatly into the top corner of the brown-trimmed porch window announces its desire to be inhabited again.

Located in the heart of the Como neighborhood, the house seems a model of affordable university housing or at the very least the perfect opportunity for newlyweds to purchase their own home.

But, last January the four-bedroom rental property was the subject of a hearing at the Minneapolis Rental Dwelling License Board of Appeals. Cited with 24 housing code violations, including over-occupancy, plumbing issues, and wiring violations, the house was deemed a “substandard dwelling.” After several months of appeals and attempted adjustments, the Board sent the case to the City Council in February with a recommendation to revoke the property owner’s rental license.

On February 24, the license was revoked and its owner, Mei Jen Chen, was asked to vacate her tenants.

This was not Chen’s first run-in with the city. In 2004, she had her rental license taken away for a property in Northeast Minneapoilis for similar code violations. And in June of this year, the City Council revoked her three remaining Minneapolis rental licenses.

The latest action against Chen, which bars her from owning rental property in Minneapolis for five years, was one of 15 rental license revocations handed down by the council in 2006. And while that number may seem less than dramatic, it’s three times the number of revocations issued in 2005.

Some community members wonder if the rise in revocations is really an indication that the city is finally getting serious about slumloards. Though many say the increase is improving housing conditions, other residents still believe the city is not doing enough to crack down on problem landlords.

“The city is starting to take this issue seriously,” South East Como Improvement Association (SECIA) Housing Committee chair Wendy Menken said. “But to be honest, if you go out and talk to people in affected neighborhoods, they don’t feel like the city is doing enough yet.”

Is legislation enough?
In an attempt to further tighten the existing laws, the City Council on October 20 passed an amendment authored by Second Ward Council Member Cam Gordon, that requires full disclosure of contact information for the owners of a property, even if it is owned by a limited liability corporation (LLC).

In the past, Menken explained, rental property owners would apply for a rental license under the name of an LLC and it would be very difficult to track down who really owned the property. Under the current law city officials must go to the state records to figure out who is included in a particular LLC.

The amendment will also make it unlawful for landlords to cut off water to properties, and will implement harsher punishments for landlords who do not have the correct permits.

However, many believe the problem of delinquent landlords will not be solved with more legislation. Brian Bushay, the chair of the city’s Rental Licensing Board of Appeals, believes that the city is not doing enough to enforce the current laws and bring problem landlords to justice.

“I think the city could make better use of rental licensing,” Bushay said. “I live in North Minneapolis, and there is a lot of bad tenant behavior. I know that conduct that would trigger revocation goes on. But there is not enough documentation by police to get these [revocation] letters out.”

According to Menken, the lack of documentation of complaint calls extends past the police. In January, the city implemented the Minneapolis 311 call system. The system was designed to streamline the handling of complaints and forward inquiries quickly to the correct city department, But Menken claims that the community’s complaints are still not always correctly documented.

Menken described a situation from this past summer in which she and her neighbors called in a complaint on a grossly overgrown lawn in the neighborhood. They called for months without a response. “When we brought it up again, they would say ‘We have nothing on the records,’” Menken recalled. “The complaints were disappearing.”

According to the 311 Performance Report found on the city’s Web site, the service has a first-call resolution rate of between 60 percent and 71 percent and has answered an average of roughly 1,350 calls a day through August.

Yet only the most severe of these complaints will ever result in rental license revocation. Though evidence of tenant misconduct and poor up-keep is widespread throughout the city, Menken feels that the cases the city chooses to pursue sometimes seem arbitrary.

“I mean five [revocations in 2005] in the city of Minneapolis,” Menken said. “That tells you right there that there is a disconnect somewhere in the system between what is going on in the communities and what the city is willing and able to do.”

A ‘high threshold’
According to Janine Atchinson, the city’s district supervisor for housing inspection services, the need for a solid case is why the numbers have been so low in the past. In fact, the reason why the numbers have tripled since last year, she says, is because of Chen’s and another problem landlord, Jay Petsche’s properties, which combined for 10 of the 15 revocations this year.

“Revocation is really at a high threshold, it’s not for everyday use,” Atchinson said. “It’s not a position that you can get to easily. This is some pretty egregious behavior.”

The city’s process of rental license revocation is long and tedious, involving a great deal of paperwork. With the city’s limited resources, revocations are still few and far between.

The revocation process begins when police or inspectors bring the property to Atchinsons’s department’s attention. If the property meets the violation criteria (a point scale for “substandard dwellings”), a notification that states the intent of revocation is sent to the tenants and the owner. Often, multiple warnings are sent in order to give the landlord an opportunity to fix the problem.

If the owner appeals the revocation, the case is heard before the Rental License Board of Appeals, a seven-member board appointed by the City Council. The Board makes a recommendation before the case goes to the council’s Public Safety and Regulatory Committee. The owner has the opportunity to appeal to this committee as well, though no new evidence may be submitted.

The council can uphold the Board’s decision, or make a new decision, eventually hearing the case before the full City Council. Once the revocation is finalized, signs are posted at the property and the tenants are notified of the decision.

“Only the City Council has the authority to revoke a license,” Atchinson said.

This is not enough for Bushay, who thinks that landlords should be given fewer opportunities to fix the problems than the multiple warnings they often receive before the rest of the process begins.

“I have recommended to a couple of the council members that they should revoke [the license] after the second letter,” Bushay said. “That is what the city needs.”

Whether the solution is more legislation or better enforcement, it seems both the city and community organizations agree that rental owners need to be held accountable for the behavior and conditions they allow on their properties.

“The owners have a large control over their property . . . and it is up to the owner to have rules of behavior for that property,” Atchinson said. “When you stop [bad] behavior it is a win-win for the neighborhood and the tenants.”

Menken agreed that more responsibility should be placed on the landlords to monitor behavior and conditions, but believes something needs to change at the city level.

“I think the city’s still tiptoeing,” she said. “I think they are starting to try and address the problem. But they are a long ways from being where they need to be. They have to be aggressive enough to change a culture. And that culture is that it is acceptable to run a really poor rental property.”

last revised: April 5, 2007