Cedar Rapids again targeting nuisance landlords, tenants

Fees, license revocation proposed for those who fail to comply

Cedar Rapids officials are making a new push to identify nuisance rental properties — including those at or near where crimes take place — and to put in place a mechanism that can assess fees and pull rental licenses from landlords with repeat violations who don’t agree to remedy them.

This latest City Hall attempt to clamp down on nuisance rental properties, nuisance landlords and nuisance tenants is being modeled after programs in Davenport, Iowa City, Dubuque and elsewhere. At a joint meeting on Thursday, the City Council’s Development Committee and Public Safety Committee agreed to bring the nuisance abatement program to a vote of the full council in December.

Here’s how the program would work:

  • A central reporting system would be used to inform landlords each time an issue comes up at one of their properties, whether it is a police call or a violation of city housing, zoning or animal ordinances.
  • The system would assess points sufficient to label a property a nuisance with repeat violations.
  • A nuisance abatement coordinator would work with landlords to come up with a plan to abate the nuisance. Landlords would be billed for city costs related to the nuisance and could have a rental license pulled if they don’t work to remedy the problems.
  • The program would ask landlords to take part in a training program and require landlords to do criminal background checks on prospective tenants, either on their own or through a city-provided service.

Council member Monica Vernon, chairwoman of the Development Committee, said on Thursday that she understands that landlords have property rights and have expressed concerns about the city infringing on those rights with tougher nuisance regulations.

“We believe in property rights, but we also believe in the rights of neighborhoods,” Vernon said. “Other property owners shouldn’t be subjected to nuisance properties.”

Police Capt. Steve O’Konek and Kevin Ciabatti, the city’s building services manager, talked to the council committees on Tuesday about how much it costs the city to continually send police officers and city zoning and housing officials to the worst of the city’s nuisance properties.

O’Konek singled out five apartment complexes in the city, noting that each had hundreds of calls for police service in each of the last three years, a cost of which was estimated at $190 an hour per call.

“We’re not going to be the private security force for landlords who think they have a God-given right to rent to anyone without doing background checks,” council member Pat Shey, a Development Committee member, emphasized on Thursday.

Shey said an ordinance in Davenport that takes steps against nuisance rental properties has worked well and resulted in a drop in the crime rate. Less crime has gotten landlords behind the program, Shey said.

Cedar Rapids area landlords have not been happy with other recent attempts by City Hall to impose certain regulations. Landlords in 2011 succeeded in court to set aside the city’s attempt to require landlords to add a “crime-free addendum” to landlord-tenant leases.

Council member Justin Shields, chairman of the council’s Public Safety Committee, said Thursday that the new nuisance abatement ordinance is designed to take on those “who don’t know how to behave.” He said that sometimes is the tenant and sometimes the landlord.

“We’re going to make some corrections,” Shields vowed. “… Some things are going to change.”

Ciabatti noted that city officials have been meeting weekly for about six months with a group of “stakeholders” that have included landlords like Mari Davis.

Davis on Thursday said the proposed new program has some good features, but she said it has the same flaw – addressing crime through landlords and rental housing – that the city’s recent unsuccessful ordinance had tried to do.

Vernon said the city’s new proposal does not “meddle” with the landlord-tenant lease.

Steve Etzel, a landlord with many rental properties in the Cedar Rapids area, on Thursday said the city needs to go after tenants who commit crimes and not punish landlords because of them.

Etzel’s partner, Tom Bevard, said the new proposed ordinance would hold a landlord accountable for a police call to the landlord’s rental property even though the tenant may not have been charged by police and so isn’t in violation of his landlord-tenant lease. How does a landlord take action in such an instance? he wondered.

Bill Roemerman, the Cedar Rapids attorney who represented local landlords against the city in the dispute over the crime-free addendum to rental agreements, on Thursday said he agreed with the “spirit” of the proposed city ordinance, but he said he wasn’t sure about using the ordinance to control the behavior of the tenant.

O’Konek said the current plan is to start to implement the new ordinance, if the council approves it, on March 1 with full implementation next July 1.

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