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Some Issues to Consider in Relations between Landlords and City Government

l. Landlords owe the community the same cooperation and support in crime-fighting efforts as any other group of citizens. It is in the interest of most property owners to keep their properties free of criminal activity, but in this endeavor they must rely upon the city police to lead and direct that fight. The police are the crime-fighting experts. They have the training and equipment to do the job properly. Landlords do not. Therefore, it is unfair to punish landlords for criminal activities occurring on or near their properties, especially when there is no requirement that the police have taken effective steps to combat the crime. The mayor has the legal authority to deputize landlords or other citizens to assist the police. To date, she has not chosen to exercise that option. Instead, city government has put landlords under an extra-legal obligation to fight crime, using the inspections department as a punitive tool. This is illegal.

2. Most landlords would gladly assist the police in ridding their buildings of criminal activity. Many would make facilities available for stings and stake-outs, for installing surveillance cameras, etc. The Minneapolis police have shown little interest in such measures. In any cooperative arrangement, the police should assume the primary role of identifying individuals who are engaged in criminal activity and in communicating that information to landlords or others who might take action. The landlord’s role in this matter is based solely on his or her power to admit and evict tenants. Therefore, any fair arrangement which punishes landlords for crime in their buildings must contain these two elements: (a) prior communication by the police to the landlord of criminal activity involving current or prospective tenants and/or their guests, (b) the landlord’s failure, upon receiving such notification, to evict or deny tenancy to persons engaging in criminal activities. Although a proposal was made to the Minneapolis police to condition punishment of landlords upon their having received pertinent information from the police, the police rejected it. Presumably, the police believed it was fair to punish landlords for crime in their buildings even if the landlord had no knowledge of the situation. This shows the arrogance of the Minneapolis police department. Its “community policing” initiative has apparently persuaded the public that bad police work has little to do with the level of crime in a neighborhood; instead, the problem is due to “absentee landlords” who will admit anyone to be a tenant so long as the person has upfront money or will pay the rent. SAFE officers trumpet this message all over town. Landlords see this as “blame shifting” by a police department unwilling to accept responsibility for its own failures. Public relations is cheaper than honest work.

3. Most complaints against landlords with respect to crime make the accusation that crime occurs in a building because the landlord has failed to screen applicants properly. Yet, the plain fact is that there is no city ordinance or state law which requires landlords to screen. In effect, landlords are being punished for failure to observe an extra-legal requirement. Why does not Minneapolis city government simply enact an ordinance which requires landlords to screen all their applicants according to a certain set of criteria? One reason is that there is no fail-safe method of screening applicants successfully. City officials know this and therefore do not wish to assume the responsibility of proposing a screening method.

Over a period of six months, an MPRAC wrote a series of monthly letters to the President of the Minneapolis City Council asking always the same two questions: (1) What method would you suggest that landlords use in screening applicants for rental housing? (2) Where should those persons live whom we landlords are expected to reject? This city official, Jackie Cherryhomes, never responded to any of those questions. From a political standpoint, she evidently thought it smart to keep the requirement of tenant screening in a state of ambiguity, where the landlord would assume the entire burden of deciding the screening criteria and would incur liability if a wrong decision happened to be made. The city’s hypocrisy has progressed to the point that the Mayor recently proposed that a key to solving the affordable-housing crisis was to expunge UD records. In other words, while landlords would continue to be held extra-legally responsible for failure to screen tenants properly (and be punished by Inspections rather than by the courts), the city wanted to restrict or remove landlords’ access to records needed to do the screening.

4. For local government to take private property without just compensation violates both the Minnesota state constitution and article 17 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet, the fact that something is illegal and immoral does not stop government from persisting in that course. Legalities, to be effective, must be defended in the courts. The City of Minneapolis employs a staff of 50 attorneys who do the bidding of top city officials, whether their actions be legal or not. This legal firepower can easily exhaust the resources of individual citizens foolish enough to challenge such actions “on principle”. How does the city take private property without compensation? Let us count some of the ways. (1) It can take a building by eminent domain, pepper the building with inspection work orders, and then use inflated repair costs to show that the building actually has a negative worth and “generously” offer the owner $1.00. (2) It can require owners of rental properties to obtain a “rental license” as a condition for occupying the building and then, at its sole discretion, revoke the license. (The courts have ruled that the owner has no property right in a rental license and therefore cannot sue when the license is lost.) (3) It can bunch inspections work orders so that an owner is financially unable to complete them within the required period. (4) It can refuse to accept tax payments and then declare a property tax-forfeited.

(Statement presented at 2001 DFL Minneapolis city convention.)

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