NEWS

On the front lines of SAFE-CR

City says it works to find and fix nuisances

Landlord Peter Schaul holds up one of the letters he has received from the SAFE-CR staff while talking with a reporter at one of his properties in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Apr. 1, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Landlord Peter Schaul holds up one of the letters he has received from the SAFE-CR staff while talking with a reporter at one of his properties in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Apr. 1, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — No one said it would be all hugs and kisses, and landlord Peter Schaul says he is proof of that.

Schaul, a full-time landlord who owns or is part owner of 35 apartments in seven buildings in Cedar Rapids, is at the ready to produce the six notices mailed to him over the course of the city’s 18-month-old SAFE-CR nuisance abatement program. Each notice let him know that not all is well at one of the apartments he owns.

The 48-year-old said he drove the first notice down to the SAFE-CR office at the Police Department’s neighborhood substation, 1501 First Ave. SE, with what he said was the best intention — “open communication” between landlord and the SAFE-CR staff.

Suffice to say, the communication has broken down a bit now that six notices have come Schaul’s way. He’s had a question about each notice, one of which the city now has set aside after his objection, the city confirmed.

“I’m just a little fish,” he said, “and this program is murky water. And what happens in murky water? The big fish eat the little fish.”

One central component of the SAFE-CR program — and the one that was most difficult to create for city officials and is most difficult to digest for some of the city’s estimated 2,500 landlords and property managers — is the program’s point system based on certain kinds of police calls to a property.

Each point generates a notice to the property owner, and an accumulation of points in a year can have the city label a property a “nuisance.” For example, three qualifying police calls for relatively minor matters or one such call for a major matter — such as a meth lab on a property — can result in the nuisance designation.

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Property owners also can obtain points for nuisance issues other than police calls, such as junk cars in the yard. Once designated a nuisance, the city asks the property owner to create a remediation plan, and the owner can face a fine for the next qualifying police call to the property in the next year.

The program provides for an appeal hearing.

Angie Charipar, assistant to the Cedar Rapids city manager, said the City Council-created program came to be, in part, because some landlords often said they did not know about police calls to their properties and so weren’t responsible for talking to their tenants about the calls.

She said a notice of a qualifying or “founded” police call that SAFE-CR now sends to a property owner keeps landlords informed and tries to encourage them pay attention to their properties and their tenants.

“It certainly allows the landlord to understand almost immediately that something not good is happening,” Charipar said.

Amanda Grieder, one of two coordinators of the SAFE-CR program, said a notice of a qualifying police call to a property owner isn’t a black mark — it’s a way for the city and landlord to work together so properties don’t become nuisances.

By way of context, the City Assessor’s Office says Cedar Rapids has about 59,000 residential units when all the owner-occupied homes, apartments, condominiums and manufactured homes are tallied up. About 25,000 are rental units, according to Garry Grimm, a landlord and an officer with Landlords of Linn County.

In the first 17 months of the SAFE-CR program, 1,325 of those residential units or 2.2 percent of the city’s total have received a notice that a qualifying police call has taken place on the property. In total, 1,764 notices have gone out to the 1,325 properties.

One surprise, said landlord Grimm, is the relatively high number of notices that have gone to owner-occupied properties — 37 percent of the total. Landlords initially thought they would get 90 percent of the letters, he said.

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In total, 276 properties or living units have accumulated a sufficient number of points to be designated a nuisance property. Of those, only 31 have received an additional police call in the year after the designation, prompting fines totaling $20.305.

The owners of eight properties with the most egregious problems have had their registrations to rent a particular residential unit suspended.

Charipar and Grieder said the city’s statistics prove what the City Council knew when it created the program: Only a tiny percentage of properties in the city rank as nuisances. And they said SAFE-CR is identifying them and helping owners to get them into compliance with the city’s standards.

SAFE-CR employs two coordinators and two technicians at a cost of $298,866 for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

Each day’s log of police calls is sent to the SAFE-CR staff, who review the log for calls that might qualify in the SAFE-CR point system.

Grieder said the staff uses some judgment and researches each potential qualifying call. That can include talking directly to the police officers from a call, she said.

Grieder said police label domestic calls on the police log as “domestic,” and she said those calls are set aside and not reviewed as spelled out in the city’s nuisance ordinance.

SAFE-CR’s point system, she said, is designed to take action against perpetrators of crime, not victims, and no one who calls police for help related to where they live is going to have the property given a point against it in the city’s nuisance program, Grieder said.

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“We ask ourselves, ‘Was somebody calling for help?’ And if that is the case, that would not be a founded call,” she said.

A big flash point, which has trigged proposed legislation at the Iowa Statehouse this year, is a dispute over whether the Cedar Rapids ordinance puts victims of domestic violence at risk of eviction if police are called to their rental unit.

Two Cedar Rapids landlords, Sheryl Jahnel and Mari Davis, have been helping push the legislation, which Jahnel said is designed to fix the “vague” city ordinance and protect victims of domestic abuse and crime.

Cedar Rapids city officials, including City Manager Jeff Pomeranz and Police Chief Wayne Jerman, have said that the proposed legislation does not correctly represent the Cedar Rapids ordinance. Meanwhile, the imprecise language of the proposed state law would gut the city’s SAFE-CR program, they said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa also is advocating for the proposed state legislation, termed Right to Assistance.

By week’s end, Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids and chairman of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee handling the proposed legislation, said he will not bring the matter up for debate this year even though it passed the Iowa House on a 98-0 vote. Hogg said the bill is too broadly written and offers no help for cities such as Cedar Rapids that are trying to address nuisance properties.

Cedar Rapids landlord Garry Grimm said he is a longtime member of the Wellington Heights neighborhood Association, in one of the city’s core neighborhoods, and also is a more recent member of the Mound View Neighborhood Association in another of the city’s core neighborhoods. He owns 19 rental homes, eight of which are in Wellington Heights and three in Mound View.

To date, Grimm has gotten two notices from the SAFE-CR program, one for a tenant’s public intoxication at one house and the other for a drug possession incident against a tenant at another house.

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“I talked to both of my tenants, and read them the riot act,” he said. “I told them what to expect if I become a nuisance property. They will be moving.”

Grimm said SAFE-CR is a frequent point of discussion among landlords and has created a running joke that the program, which also requires criminal background checks of prospective tenants, will send all the city’s bad tenants to Marion and Hiawatha.

“We’re all trying to avoid that nuisance designation,” he said. “It has made all landlords think a lot more.”

Landlord Peter Schaul said his duplex at 1128 Ninth St. SE now carries a nuisance property designation because of three of the more-minor, one-point police calls to the property in a year. He missed a chance to appeal the matter by two days, at which time he would have argued that two of the calls went to one of the two units and the other to the other unit, so neither unit has three calls, he said.

Schaul said SAFE-CR needs a better standardized process to define what ranks as a qualifying police call to a property and what doesn’t.

He said the SAFE-CR program also needs to see him for what he is: Someone who took his retirement savings and invested it in rental properties, on which he said he now pays about $52,000 a year in property taxes.

“I’m an asset to the community, not a problem,” he said.

Two of the three fourplexes that Schaul owns sit next to Cherokee Park in northwest Cedar Rapids, and last week, the sun was shining, the grass was coming to life and walkers were crowding the trail that cuts through the park. It was hard to imagine rental units that would be easier to rent than his.

Sufficiently pleasant was the afternoon that Schaul said he would try a new approach should he ever again get a notice from SAFE-CR.

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“I appreciate the letter,” he imagined himself saying to the SAFE-CR staff. “Are you ready to call a truce? Let’s work together.”

SAFE-CR Nuisance abatement program

“Founded” police calls prompting letters to property owners

• Rental: 1,080

• Owner-occupied: 651

• Commercial: 33

• Total: 1,764

• Number of different properties: 1,325

Properties determined to be nuisances

• Total: 276

• Now in compliance: 44

• Rentals: 147

• Owner-occupied: 79

• Commercial: 6

• Number of properties fined: 31

• Total billed: $20,305

• Number of appeals: 38

• Upheld: 27

• Overturned: 9

• Still to be determined: 2

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