Property owners call people to action

Published 9:20 am Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A few landlords involved with the recent rental housing task force meeting are calling people to action to prevent what they’re calling “a license to tax” from coming to fruition.

In a letter they sent to area landlords after last week’s task force meeting, landlords Mike Carstens and Dave Montaño Sr. said the city is not willing to compromise to get its new rental housing task force ordinance passed.

“We were under the impression that this was supposed to be a meeting to compromise — to come up with something that both sides could live with,” said Montaño, who is also running for the 5th Ward council seat. “But I think they had a set agenda already before we got into the task force meeting.”

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The discussion on rental housing formulated in April, after the Albert Lea City Council voted to table an ordinance that would have established a method of registering landlords and enforcing the already-in-place minimum housing standards to the living conditions of people who rent apartments and houses.

The ordinance would have required that before receiving a license, landlords would be required to have an inspection of their properties prior to renting them. Then, subsequent inspections would be conducted every few years, depending on the results of the previous inspection. More than a dozen landlords showed opposition to this idea at that council meeting.

As a result of the opposition, a task force made up of landlords, tenants, housing leaders, Realtors, city council members and other city staff was formed.

While the group has discussed many portions of the ordinance since it was formulated, the landlords continued to show much opposition and have asked for several changes to the ordinance.

Some of the changes were made; some were not.

“Hidden behind a campaign to ‘protect the renters of Albert Lea’ is really a vehicle to raise the taxes on the small businesses of Albert Lea,” Carstens wrote.

“Do you ever wonder why so many people are taking time out of their lives to oppose the city council’s proposed licensing ordinance?” he said. “Do you think all of these people who are against it are just bad landlords?”

It affects everybody — even those of owner-occupied homes, he said.

If the ordinance does come to fruition, the landlords said, the costs involved would have to be passed on to the renters.

“The really sad part of this whole ordeal is that the city council is targeting the citizens of Albert Lea who are on a low or fixed income for this,” Carstens wrote. “The small businesses who rent homes will of course have to pass the extra taxes and costs associated with doing business in Albert Lea onto their customers (tenants). These citizens who are being targeted for ‘protection’ are senior citizens, students, young families and immigrant families.”

Albert Lea Fire Chief and Inspector Paul Stieler responded by saying proposed business license fees will only cost owners somewhere from 37 cents to $1.66 per month for each apartment. Substandard rental units, of course, would pay additional fees.

The landlords said the City Council is wanting to raise about $25,000 for a new computer system in the permit department, but unless the council votes to raise taxes, there are limited funds available for it.

By creating the rental housing ordinance, the city can charge a tax for a licensing fee to each small business that rents homes, they said. Through this, the city could raise $80,000.

“There is a reason for all of the opposition,” Carstens wrote. “Look closely and ask questions now! After this tax increase passes, your only recourse will be to elect different leaders and to deal with what you allowed to happen for years to come.”

He said if someone is going to speak up he or she should do so now.

“The council members of Albert Lea believe this is a good thing that they are doing,” Carstens said.

He signed the letter “with sincerity and a heavy heart.”

Stieler said he cannot respond for the council or the county assessor, but he is not aware of any hidden agendas in getting the rental ordinance passed.

“The purpose of the rental housing licensing ordinance is clearly explained in the purpose section of the ordinance,” Stieler said. “The city of Albert Lea desires to protect the public health, safety and general welfare of the citizen who live in apartments.”

He said the rental licensing program is a proactive effort that has several purposes. These include protecting the character and stability of rental housing; correcting and preventing housing conditions that adversely affect the life, safety, health and general welfare of the occupants of rental housing; enforcing minimum standards for the maintenance of rental properties to prevent blight; and preserving neighborhood property values.

The ordinance also provides a process that protects tenants from neighboring tenants who choose to violate city nuisance laws, ranging from loud music and barking dogs to drug dealing, Stieler said. It requires owners to have written contracts that permit habitual nuisance law violators to be evicted.

“This process protects the quality of life for the remaining tenants,” he said.

This spring, the city held informational meetings to provide people the opportunity to view pictures taken of substandard living conditions in Albert Lea, Stieler said.

“Most attendees agreed renters should not be living in these substandard conditions,” he said.