Cedar Rapids again looking to crack down on bad landlords

City Council today will consider new nuisance properties ordinance

CEDAR RAPIDS — City officials and local landlords here have been going around and around for the last few years as the city has tried to come up with a way to get tough on bad landlords and bad tenants.

After a series of meetings in recent months, the city is now poised to try again. And landlords are ready with plenty of questions.

The City Council today will consider passing a new ordinance that defines how many of which behaviors by tenant or landlord will prompt a property to be labeled a nuisance. Such a label could result in fines against a property and a requirement that the property owner remedy the problem.

The nuts and bolts of the city’s proposed ordinance will have city employees from a variety of departments, including police officers and housing inspectors, feeding information about property violations into the same database, which quickly will alert property owners -- including homeowners -- of problems at their properties. The city also will create a new city position of nuisance abatement coordinator, who will work with property owners on violations, penalties and plans to remedy the problems.

Part of the focus of the new ordinance is on the behavior of tenants with the premise being that landlords have a responsibility to pay attention to their properties and to the people to whom they rent.

A nuisance label will attach to a property, for instance, if a serious crime occurs at or near a property during a 12-month period or two less serious crimes do or three even less serious ones do.

The property also can become a nuisance property for repeated health code violations, repeated reports of having junk vehicles and debris in the yard and not mowing grass or shoveling snow from sidewalks in repeated fashion.

City Council member Monica Vernon, chairwoman of the council’s Development Committee and a supporter of the new city ordinance, said the changes are designed to quickly notify property owners of problems with their properties and to work with them to fix the problems.

"What we really want are better properties," Vernon said.

At the same time, she said she understood that some landlords might still have concerns, "but we got to do it."

The ordinance is modeled after ordinances in Iowa cities like Davenport and Dubuque.

On Monday, Laura O’Leary, president of Landlords of Linn County, said her organization has decided for now not to support or oppose the new proposed nuisance ordinance.

However, O’Leary said the landlord group believes that the proposed ordinance as now written has too much "ambiguity."

O’Leary said landlords also are concerned that the city won’t quickly notify landlords of problems, but instead will tag properties as nuisances before the landlord knows there is a problem.

Robin Tucker, a landlord and Realtor, on Monday said the city’s proposed nuisance ordinance places all the burden on the property owner and none on the tenant. The proposed ordinance is too "heavy-handed" and lacks an educational component for tenants, he added.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa opposes the ordinance.

“Knowing that multiple calls to the police could lead to eviction, a domestic violence victim may feel forced to remain silent to avoid homelessness,” said Rita Bettis, ACLU of Iowa legislative director and staff attorney. “We urge Cedar Rapids and cities across the state to focus on providing services to victims of abuse, rather than doubling down on their victimization with the threat of eviction.”

"This ordinance, will make it harder for victims of domestic violence to stay safe in their own homes. Forcing victims of domestic violence to choose between a police call and a possible eviction isn't in anyone's best interest,” said Zebulon Beilke-McCallum Housing and Economic Justice Coordinator for the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence

In 2011, the landlords succeeded in court to block an effort by the city to toughen its oversight of rental properties.

Local attorney Bill Roemerman, who represented the landlords in 2011, wrote the city on Monday to object to the proposed new ordinance on several fronts. In his letter, he states that landlords can’t be held liable for nuisances created by tenants, that proposed fees in the ordinance are illegal taxes and that tenants like other people aren’t nuisances.

The city believes its latest proposal will satisfy any legal challenge, Mayor Ron Corbett said on Monday.

Council member Vernon said she isn’t surprised about the landlord concerns because the ordinance is a notable change in the way the city regulates property.

"But I think the general public out there welcomes it," Vernon said. "The vast majority of our citizens and our tenants and landlords are great people. But we been inching and inching toward a higher and higher percentage of those who are not taking care of their properties. And we just have to stop it."

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