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Rental housing ordinance would affect landlords, tenants

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Park Rapids, 56470

Park Rapids Minnesota PO Box 111 56470

• Editor's note: This is the first story in a three-part series about housing in Park Rapids.

After listening to numerous complaints over the years from Park Rapids renters concerning everything from mold to unpleasant neighbors to irresponsible landlords, city council member Nancy Tague wanted to make a change.

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"There are bad situations," says Tague, a renter herself.

Tague, the city council and planning commission are currently researching what it would take to implement a rental housing ordinance.

City planner Mike Strodtman is in the process of researching other cities' ordinances. City building inspector Dave Nissen, who is an inspector for several cities with rental housing ordinances, is also assisting in the process, Tague says.

Also taken into consideration will be a 2000 housing study of Park Rapids.

"The study said the city needed a registry of landlords and inspections," Tague says.

According to the 2000 US Census Bureau, 47.6 percent of Park Rapids residents rent an apartment or house, the third-highest percentage in a 16-city regional comparison. The only cities with a higher percentage of renters were Fargo and Alexandria, home to colleges.

When comparing median age, only two cities have a higher median age - Nevis and Menahga - which is unusual considering most cities with high rates of renters have a college or university, the Census shows.

An ordinance may require landlords to register with the city and pay a yearly fee per unit not yet determined, Tague says. Scheduled inspections would also be required.

Tague says she understands implementing an ordinance is a big undertaking, but it will take input from the community to make it work.

"The city has looked into creating a committee," she says, which would hopefully include landlords, hospital staff and community members.

Some landlords may not agree that a city ordinance is a good idea, Tague says.

"Let's not shoot it down until we look at it," she says.

When is enough, enough?

Marna Bergquist, 68, rented at one Park Rapids apartment for 10 and a half years before she finally said, "enough is enough."

Bergquist, who is retired from Lamb-Weston RDO and recently moved to Jordan, MN, calls her former landlord - a Fargo-based management company - "the slumlords of Park Rapids."

"Thank goodness I got out of there," she says. "The last three years were horrible."

Bergquist dealt with every problem imaginable, she says: water flowing up through the bathtub drain, refrigerator pipes freezing, her thermostat breaking, pipes held together with tape, black mold, dangerous electrical wiring and unreliable managers, to name a few.

"Their excuse was, they were the cheapest place in town," says Bergquist, who paid $370 per month for rent, including utilities. She didn't qualify for low-income housing and couldn't afford many apartments in town.

Bergquist says although her building had some good managers, it was almost impossible to contact her landlord if she had problems or even an emergency.

"There was nothing...you could call and call and call, you could never get a hold of them," she says. "It is really so sad."

Almost all the renters in her eight-unit complex were single and over 60 years old.

Although she was never late with her rent payment and never considered herself a complainer, Bergquist wrote her landlord a four-page letter when she moved out. She says she doubts the letter did any good - "the building would be torn down before anything changed there."

"People with low incomes, they really don't have a chance," Bergquist says. "They have to have a roof over their heads and be safe. They do need good laws."

Sarah Platz, 24, lived in a newly renovated, two-story apartment building from December 2004 through May 2005.

"The people that lived across from us were arresting for meth in the parking lot," she says.

Platz says she didn't feel safe living there, even though she had a roommate for part of the time.

"They didn't have security cameras, which bothered me," she says. "And anyone could walk through the main door." There were no garages available at her building.

In addition to fear of walking though the poorly lit parking lot and worrying about neighbors, she says her apartment was not heated or cooled effectively.

"The insulation for the building was absolutely horrible," she says. "The heating came out of the ceiling. Cold air seeped through the baseboards and windows."

After receiving her first month's heating bill for $100, she turned down the heat and wore layered clothing. Platz paid about $450 per month plus utilities.

There was no air conditioning as well, and her landlord did not follow through with a promise to install fans.

Platz says her landlord, who lived out of town, was not always reliable.

"Once I got a hold of him, he was nice." she says. "When I called in the spring, I couldn't get a response for two, three weeks."

Landlords speak up

Lori Duchesneau, president of D.W. Jones Management in Walker, says a city rental housing ordinance insures "everyone has to come up to a certain standard. I think it's a great idea."

D.W. Jones owns about 80 apartment complexes in northern Minnesota and the Fargo area. They own or manage six in Park Rapids.

Duchesneau says an ordinance may give renters peace of mind about safety.

Several area cities D.W. Jones owns complexes in - Bemidji, Brainerd, Blackduck and Crookston - already have rental housing ordinances, Duchesneau says. Typically, she says, they have to pay about $15 per rental unit, and comply with regular inspections.

Peter McAlpin, co-owner of Spruce Manor in Park Rapids, is on the opposite side of the spectrum.

"I'm 100 percent against it," he says. "I will fight it to the end."

McAlpin, who has owned his 14-unit complex for eight years, says most rental rates in town are controlled by the marketplace.

"I can only charge rent what I think people can make," he says. Many of his tenants are low-income.

McAlpin is concerned that if the city charges landlords per-unit, it will affect his tenants.

"Who's going to pick up the tab? Pretty obvious," he says. "I'm going to have to raise the rent."

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