Nuisance no more

The Gazette Opinion Staff
Published: December 16 2012 | 12:01 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 3:24 am in
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By The Gazette Editorial Board

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There goes the neighborhood.

It’s usually a punch line. But some Cedar Rapids residents are living it. On an otherwise quiet, well-kept residential street, one or two properties have persistent problems. Maybe it’s trash or peeling paint or major structural issues that need to be addressed. Perhaps the police have been called multiple times. It could be loud dogs, loud music, broken windows or perpetually un-shoveled walks.

In time, those problems, left unresolved, can change a neighborhood, redefining how its residents and outsiders perceive it. In the worst cases, those isolated problems spread, and change more than perceptions. There goes the neighborhood.

It’s happening in Cedar Rapids, in some areas of the city’s once and still-proud neighborhoods. The number of police calls for service averaged as many as two per unit at some apartment complexes in 2011. And City Council members are determined to do something about it.

We support their efforts to address nuisance properties and blunt their impact. We think council members are on the right track.

“We’re putting them on notice,” said City Council Mayor Pro Tem Monica Vernon. “I just don’t think anyone deserves to live near a constant nuisance. That’s just wrong. That’s what we all think.”

ALL RESIDENTIAL PROPERTY

The council is actually moving on two tracks.

The first involves major changes to municipal code Chapter 22, which deals with nuisance properties. At its core, the plan involves coordinating the nuisance property duties of several city agencies, including the police, animal control, housing, code enforcement, zoning and solid waste.

And although much of the debate over the changes has centered on rental properties, the changes would apply to every residential property in the city, including owner-occupied homes.

Founded nuisances identified by coordinating agencies would be classified under three tiers, with tier 1 nuisances being the most serious, tier 3 the least. Property owners are notified and their case is forwarded to a new Nuisance Property Abatement Coordinator — a police employee who would assist property owners in crafting a nuisance abatement plan and timeline for completion.

The city insists that its primary intent is to work with owners to fix problems, not hand out punishment. City leaders acknowledge that the vast majority of problems are caused by well under 10 percent of landlords but say those can’t be individually targeted. Ordinances must treat everyone the same and the proposals do that.

“The city wants to work with people,” Vernon said.

But if abatements plans are not fulfilled, and problems persist, the

property will be formally declared a nuisance for 12 months. And city leaders say they are determined to hit nuisance property owners in the wallet if they don’t fix issues. For example, the city will begin assessing fees for service to properties, such as $190 per-hour for a police call. Properties with ongoing unresolved issues would be most likely to feel what city officials call the nuisance law’s new “teeth.”

“Now, we’re going to keep score on a property and how it’s being managed,” said Council member Pat Shey. In the past, he said, agencies haven’t coordinated on nuisance enforcement.

PUBLIC HEARING

A public hearing on changes to Chapter 22 is scheduled for Tuesday. Council members hope to vote on the changes in February and put then into effect in March. Leaders say they’ll opt for a “soft launch” that introduces the changes, with full enforcement July 1.

On track No. 2 are proposed changes to Chapter 29, establishing criteria and training for the city’s landlords and offering a system of tenant background checks that would be conducted by the city for a fee. Background checks would be mandatory, but landlords don’t have to use the city service. And property owners could use the background check information as they see fit. The city will not require evictions, nor bar landlords from renting to those with criminal records.

Under the proposal, all landlords would receive training in year one, with online training for those who own three or fewer properties and in-person training for the rest. Retraining would be required every five years, or if an owner’s property is declared a nuisance. And nuisance property landlords could have their city registration rescinded.

However, no timetable for presenting a draft of Chapter 29 changes for public hearing has been announced yet.

Together, city leaders contend that a new, coordinated focus on nuisance properties, rental tenant background checks and training for landlords will add up to fewer problem properties in the city standing in the way of revitalization and development. They point to a similar effort in Davenport, where officials say it has helped to stem crime and decay in some of that city’s core neighborhoods.

And they insist that the changes are less restrictive and more equitable than an earlier ordinance requiring landlords to tack a crime-free addendum onto all lease agreements. A judge last year tossed it out on constitutional grounds after landlords sued to overturn it.

LANDLORDS’ CONCERNS

Not everyone here is convinced, however, that the city is doing the right thing in its new approach. Mari Davis, a landlord and property manager in Cedar Rapids, said she and other landlords are concerned that the changes will aim severe punishments at landlords for problems caused by tenants. She also questions whether the city has the authority to mandate background checks and landlord training.

“I think there’s some serious issues with the language,” Davis said, who argues that tenants should be more involved in the notification and abatement process.

“A lot of times we try to make the best choices we can. But things happen. And none of us can really control that,” Davis said.

Even landlords who helped the city craft the proposed changes say they’re worried about how the city plans to enforce them. There are concerns that the city’s stated intent to assist owners in fixing problems could transform into a more punitive approach. Some landlords simply don’t trust the city.

We think a more coordinated approach to nuisance properties is smart, and we support putting more people and resources into abatement efforts. We also believe the success or failure of the effort will depend on the city’s ability to bring common sense and flexibility to its enforcement structure. Although stiff punishment is appropriate in some serious cases, in many other instances, especially those where owners are blindsided by an issue caused by tenants, discernment will be needed. Finding that balance will be critical to gaining public support.

We support background checks and landlord training, although we believe in-person training may be even more valuable for small-scale landlords than those who already manage dozens of properties. We also think creating an “academy” to educate tenants could also be valuable, as well as providing information to all homeowners who will be subject to the changes. Clear, prompt communication between the city and property owners will be key.

WHY SEPARATELY?

But we question why the city is proceeding with Chapter 22 and 29 changes separately. We agree with landlords who contend that the issues are linked, and should be debated and approved simultaneously. Delaying the landlord training and background check program seems counterproductive.

Why rush one ordinance ahead of the other?

Bottom line, we believe nuisance properties and their impact create problems large enough and serious enough to warrant city action of this scope and depth. And we support the proposed ordinances, so long as their enforcement is carried out in a reasonable manner that balances the desire to eliminate problems with the rights and resources of property owners.

A well-coordinated effort, with both teeth and a collaborative approach, could help some of the city’s neighborhoods go from troubled to a better future.

l Comments: editorial@sourcemedia.net or (319) 398-8262

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