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IT'S OUR TURN: Do what’s right for tenants, Nevis

The argument “I think houses are safe, and if they’re not, then that’s just between the homeowner and the renter” raises more issues than it puts to rest.

RobinFish2022.jpg
Robin Fish, staff reporter
Shannon Geisen / Park Rapids Enterprise

When I read the Enterprise coverage of the Nevis Council’s April 14 workshop on their rental ordinance, I got mad. And I wrote it.

I’d like to give the council credit for being too smart to make a decision based on feedback from just one side of the issue – landlords. But I’m not sure, given that one council member, Blair Reuther, voiced a strong bias in favor of their interest.

“Strong” might not be a strong enough word. Reuther reported angrily throwing the ordinance in the trash; claimed rental inspections violate the Fourth, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments; circulated a petition to repeal it behind the council’s back; and smeared the League of Minnesota Cities for good measure.

Then another councilor, Katie Rittgers, blinked in the face of criticism and sounded ready to walk the ordinance back. A third, Teresa Leshovsky, said nothing to indicate where she stands.

Meanwhile, they were hearing advice from people who (to give just one example) said things like: “I think houses are safe, and if they’re not, then that’s just between the homeowner and the renter” – an argument that raises more issues than it puts to rest.

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All that leaves me concerned that, facing some landlords’ pushback, the council may retreat from a city code update that really makes sense.

I don’t live in Nevis. But I’ve covered several cities as a reporter, and I’ve seen some of the good a rental ordinance can do. Also, I’ve lived in rental housing nearly all of my life, with experiences ranging from homey to hellish.

I won’t speculate about why no one spoke for the tenants at the April 14 workshop. I didn’t speak up, either, because my opinion can’t be part of a news story I’m reporting. But I do have an opinion. Here are its main points:

  1. It is reasonable and right for a city to safeguard its residents’ safety, quality of life, and rights, such as being treated fairly and decently.
  2. It is also right for a city to protect local property values and the town’s public image.
  3. Rental housing inspections are reasonable, part of the services many cities provide, along with water and sewer utilities, streets and parks.
  4. These inspections serve the interests of landlords, tenants, neighbors and the city as a whole. One group’s sentiments should not prevent leaders from seeing that.
  5. What matters isn’t whether or not you can trust one group of landlords to take care of their property and respect their tenants’ rights. You must treat all renters equally. 

And realistically, you have to be prepared for a landlord who lets a rental property go to hell, as the then-owners of Park Rapids’ Park Avenue Apartments did until the state fire marshal stepped in in 2018. A lot of corrective action had to be taken – including a change of owners and of city building officials – to ensure the tenants have a safe and hygienic place to live.
As a child, I once lived in a pest-ridden rathole where the landlord did nothing but dun us for rent. Another time, my family was evicted without cause so a friend of the landlord could move in.

As an adult, I’ve had a landlord stalk me, walk in on my workplace spouting slander about me, and assault a realtor who was helping me find a new place. I’ve rented a house where the floor was collapsing, an apartment where a faulty air conditioner caught on fire, and one where I thought my upstairs neighbors were killing each other.

Some of my landlords stepped up to help. I repeat: some. So I know from experience that not every landlord can be relied on, and when tenants have to fall back on the city to protect them, it had better be equipped.

Dear Nevis Council, I think you know the right thing to do. For whatever it’s worth, my advice is to do that.

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Opinion by Robin Fish
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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