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Citizen feedback prompts Nevis Council to rethink rental ordinance

A public council workshop is scheduled for April 14 to respond to rental property owners' concerns.

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Property owner Jeff Stacey voiced objections to the city's rental ordinance at the Nevis City Council meeting on March 14, 2022. Trevor Nicklason, at left behind Stacey, also gave feedback about this year's rental inspections.
Robin Fish / Park Rapids Enterprise.

The Nevis City Council received citizen feedback March 14 about the rental ordinance that it approved in July 2021.

The discussion began with council members reviewing their Feb. 14 discussion about rescheduling rental inspections to accommodate a property owner who planned to be out of town. At that time, the city’s building official advised that he would bill the city for mileage, meal expenses and his time for each visit added to his contract.

Mayor Jeanne Thompson said the council now had to decide whether to pass those charges along to the property owner who requested the additional visit.

Council member Katie Rittgers said she was “torn on this guy as a whole” and questioned whether the city could look for a rental inspector who would be more flexible. Thompson pointed out that the official’s contract runs through the 2024 rental inspections.

Council member Teresa Leshovsky pointed out that other building inspectors live in the area.

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Thompson suggested having city staff check whether the official’s contract has a termination clause and begin looking into alternatives.

Stacey objects

Local resident Jeff Stacey admitted he was the rental owner whose family vacation plans raised the issue. Due to an apparent miscommunication, Stacey objected to being told he was going to be charged for the rental inspector’s return visit.

“It was very clear that the conversation needed to come back to the council to decide what was going to happen to the charges,” said Thompson.

Deputy Clerk Kimberly Wright claimed the council decided in February to charge the property owner for the cost of bringing the inspector back, but Thompson and other council members disputed this.

Meanwhile, Stacey voiced general disagreement with the rental ordinance. “I think the intent was good,” he said, “but I think it is an overreach, as far as you granting somebody permission to come into my home, that I purchased and that I chose to rent out to somebody.”

He compared this to telling someone you’re going to enter and inspect their home. “I would totally disagree with that,” he said. “The city imposes this on us, and now tells us that we have to do this, this and this and go through this rental inspection process, and if I’m in violation of it, then I can be charged (with) a misdemeanor and have to pay another $250 up to $1,000.”

He asked the city to reconsider the ordinance, saying he was told he didn’t need to be present at the inspection, but “it’s my home. I make the payments on it.”

Council responds

Council member Sue Gray said one difference between a rental inspection and going into a private home is that when you rent out a property, it becomes a commercial enterprise.

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Gray said she was told the inspections went well. “The only problems that we had in all 53 units that are rented in our city right now,” she said, “were a few fire alarms that were not in place.”

Stacey objected to the ordinance in general and suggested dealing with rental issues based on complaints. Thompson said this would lead to favoritism.

“You have to have a flat bottom line,” she said. “We’re trying to protect our city from going another direction, much like Akeley did or other communities.”

She said there have been issues, in Nevis and elsewhere, with rental properties taking over everything, owners neglecting their property, renters not being properly cared for and landlords contacted by the city saying, “Too bad, I don’t care.”

“We had to start somewhere, to have teeth, to be able to address those issues,” said Thompson. “It’s to hold not only landlords accountable, but it gives you the ability to then, as a landlord, to come back to your tenant and say, ‘These are what we expect of you as a tenant.’”

Gray and Thompson recalled that no rental owners participated in the council’s discussion of the ordinance.

Thompson said they can re-address the issues in the ordinance, and asked that interested parties be present and voice their concerns.

Protecting the community

Trevor Nicklason, who also owns several rental units in the city, said he didn’t find the rental process all that painful.

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Nevertheless, he suggested changing the term between rental inspections longer than two years.

“My job is rental housing,” Thompson replied, “and if I were to look at any inspector … and say, ‘Yeah, I don’t think you need to come back for five years, we’re good,’ they’re gonna tell me to fly a kite.”

She said the reason for the ordinance, modified from one used in Park Rapids, is to protect property values and the life and safety of renters.

Gray stressed the high percentage of rental properties the city has and the council’s desire to keep the town up to a certain standard.

Discussion turned toward the “Rental Agreement for Crime Free Housing” on the last page of the rental ordinance, which Gray said Deputy Josh Oswald asked them to put in.

“That protects the landlord and it protects the tenant,” said Gray.

Thompson said the Crime-Free Housing agreement has been adopted by cities statewide, giving property owners “some teeth” to hold problem renters accountable, and giving cities teeth to address either the owner or the renter.

Reuther concerns

Council member Blair Reuther said the ordinance allows the city to meddle in private-sector business. Thompson reiterated that rental housing is commercial property.

“People that live there still have their privacy and confidentiality, unless there is an issue with their behavior,” she said. “Then, if it’s illegal, the Crime-Free Housing allows us to utilize that, whether you’re the owner of the property or the city.”

Reuther also objected to the Crime-Free contract allowing the city to remove a renter, which Thompson and Gray denied. Thompson said in her experience, landlords use the document as part of their rental agreement, so their tenants understand that if they violate it their lease can be terminated.

“But it’s a private business,” said Reuther, arguing landlords should be able to opt into it freely.

“Most every city utilizes the Crime-Free Rental Agreement,” Thompson replied.

“Just because you can pass a law doesn’t mean it’s a fair law,” said Reuther.

“So we should just say, go with it, and anybody can do what they want and we don’t have any teeth, the owners don’t have any teeth, and the neighbors who are dealing with it don’t deal with it?” asked Thompson.

“That’s another subject,” said Reuther.

“No, it’s not,” said Thompson. “It’s all part of the same process.”

Back to the drawing board

Gray asked Stacey if he would be willing to sit down with a committee, and he said, “Absolutely.”

Thompson called for a special council workshop to look at the rental ordinance and bring recommendations to the city council for action. She urged that all council members take part, and invited Nicklason as well.

“It’ll have to be published, because it will be an open meeting, and others can attend as well,” said Thompson.

Council members agreed to table discussion of rental inspection fees, and Thompson made a motion to hold the workshop. After the motion passed, they scheduled it for 6 p.m. Thursday, April 14 at city hall.

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Robin Fish is a staff reporter at the Park Rapids Enterprise. Contact him at rfish@parkrapidsenterprise.com or 218-252-3053.
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