St. Paul officials have been talking for years about how to make landlords more accountable. They've got a rental registration system right now, but the city has found it lacks teeth.
This summer, a tragic accident refocused attention on rental properties. Three young children and two adults were critically injured in a house fire near the Capitol. One of the victims, a mother of two, died from her injuries.
The building is now condemned. The landlord is facing jail and fines because city officials found a slew of code violations. There was an illegal apartment in the attic, it was overcrowded, and a smoke detector was missing batteries.
"We see too much of that," says St. Paul City Councilmember Jay Benanav. "One death or one injury is one too many."
Benanav is a co-sponsor of proposed legislation to strengthen the city's rental property licensing laws. He says his ward is 50 percent rental property. It's mostly student housing.
"We have landlords who buy, thinking they can make a fast buck by renting to students," he says. "Some of the landlords then don't reinvest in the property, the property becomes run down. One of the other major issues is they over-occupy."
The proposed ordinance would require landlords to meet all safety and fire codes. It would also require landlords to license each and every rental property they own, including single family homes and duplexes. Under current law only buildings with three rental units or more are subject to this stricter standard.
The new measure would also require more inspections for problem properties.
Pat Fish has seen a lot in her 24 years as a fire inspector. This day, she's making the rounds in a University Avenue apartment complex.
"We've always maintained that 90 percent of the problems are caused by 10 percent of the landlords," she says.
Fish says she and her colleagues in the fire department will likely see an increase in workload if the new licensing ordinance passes. They currently inspect just over 3,000 buildings, which is about 45,000 rental units. If the ordinance passes, another 6,000 buildings will be added.
The city expects it will take two to three years to roll out the new system. The city will charge landlords increased fees to pay for the stepped-up enforcement.
Patricia Whitney, a real estate attorney and president of the St. Paul Association of Responsible Landlords, estimates, on the low end, some landlords will pay about 8 percent more in fees, but she says others face increases of more than 100 percent.
"Our membership is always concerned about increasing fees because increasing costs makes it harder and harder to make any profit in this business. Profit is something legitimate," she says.
Whitney notes that city officials have made little effort to reach out to her members in crafting the new ordinance. And, she objects to the premise that landlords are always to blame for problem properties. She says sometimes the law makes it very hard to remove problem tenants, leaving landlords caught in the middle.
"It's been made to sound, by mostly by our opponents, made it sound like all landlords are out there sipping mint juleps, and just hogging the rent and not putting any work into the buildings, which I don't find to be the case with our membership," she says.
Whitney says she's skeptical the new system will result in higher quality housing in St. Paul. And she says it could decrease the amount of affordable housing in the city.
But city officials say the new system is a long time coming and the best solution to maintain the integrity and safety of St. Paul's housing stock.