Wednesday, October 25, 2006

HAND staff: Rental Issues

GANA Speaker Series (no regular meeting)
Wednesday, October 25, 2006, 7:00 – 8:30 p.m.
First Christian Church on 3rd Street

TOPIC: RENTAL ISSUES Ordinances and Compliance Procedures for Over-occupancy, Weeds and Trash.
With Carol Jack, Lisa Abbott, and Vickie Provine of the city office of Housing and Neighborhood Development (HAND)

Seventeen people present, including several from Elm Heights and East Side Neighborhood Associations

Carol Jack, the HAND Compliance Officer, described the ordinances for both over-occupancy and weeds and trash, detailing the numbers of citations between August 1 and October 25, this year. Vickie Provine stressed the importance of communication, both between neighbors and between neighborhood associations and city offices. Carol, Vickie and Lisa, the Director of HAND, those took questions and those present got into a vigorous discussion.

The Process
This was a meeting with a lot of technical information. Please bear with me, as it is all interesting and gives food for thought.

Compliance Officer Carol Jack began by showing us a map of Bloomington with four color-coded zones. Five HAND people rotate through these zones every three months, one person per zone, with the fifth person rotating off. Between August 1 and October 25,388 tickets were issued for trash, and 116 tickets for weeds. Twenty-four complaints were filed for over-occupancy, with eight determined not valid and sixteen ongoing.

As of 1985, over-occupancy zoning changed from five to three unrelated persons (and any dependents), except for grandfathered rental units, which continue to have a five-occupant limit, even if the ownership of the structure changes hands. The occupancy limit for a particular rental unit is governed by the zoning ordinance and the property maintenance codes (based on the number of square feet of bedrooms), and is supposed to be posted somewhere inside the house. If the occupancy load on the lease is three people, then the tenants can purchase parking permits for three cars plus one car for visitors.

The procedure to determine over-occupancy can be long, involved and difficult to prove. HAND staff first needs to interview the tenants, and may have to make six or seven visits to the home before they even find anyone there. Tenants almost always answer the questions, though sometimes the landlord has coached the renters as to what questions HAND will ask.

HAND then sends a letter to the landlord asking for a copy of the lease and the occupancy load. If HAND determines that there are too many people living in a rental unit, and the situation is not corrected, HAND requests permission from the Board of Public Works to go on to the property to abate the situation. If still not corrected, a memo is sent to the Director of HAND (Lisa Abbott), who then passes it on to the city for suit against both landlord and tenants in small claims court. As of January 1, 2007, the fine for a first offence will be $2500 and for a second offence $7500.

There are 21,562 registered rental units within city limits. Each unit is inspected for conformity to the property maintenance code once every three, four or five years. This year 1,592 inspections have been done to date.

Triggers for complaints are usually parties, trash, cars and noise. Complaints can be made anonymously, though if you want to know the result, then you need to leave your name, which does then enter the system.

Though some long-term landlords coach renters, new landlords are not usually a problem, and some old ones have been fined enough that they’ve stopped renting to too many people.

In terms of defining over-occupancy, if someone is living in a place and not on the deed and not a dependent, then even if that person is not paying rent, that place is still counted as a rental and must be registered. In some neighborhoods 50% of new sales are to parents who buy them for their college age kids; these are also considered rentals and must be registered. It costs $62 to register a rental, and that money goes for an inspection for the permit plus one re-inspection. It’s easier to prove a rental is unregistered than to prove it over-occupied.

The discussion that followed brought up a host of examples of problems relating to compliance with these ordinances. For example, one person in Green Acres counted 32 cars at the end of Roosevelt and Clark one weekend. The problem is compounded by the fact that parking is not enforced on weekends.

Another Green Acres resident said that this semester the rental house next door to him has loud parties every Friday and Saturday nights that can last until 5 A.M. So far not even a call to the police has produced results.

Several suggestions were made, all of which involved the point that Vickie Provine stressed in her presentation. Communicate! Lots of suggestions from participants, to wit:

  • Meet your new neighbors when they move in, hand them the city regulations on quiet nights, trash days, etc. Welcome them to the neighborhood! They may not have any idea that they are actually in a neighborhood where people that don’t go to college actually live until you let them know. Give them a gift.
  • Ask a young neighbor to help you with a small task, with the idea that everybody loves to feel useful.
  • Invite them to neighborhood meetings and events.
  • When a loud party goes on too long, walk over there in your pajamas! One man even takes his pillow, asks "Can I sleep here, since I can’t sleep at home . . ."
  • Do a neighborhood intervention in the middle of the night—all of you at their door in pajamas!

The point is with all of these ways of dealing with parties—it helps to establish communication with students. Once we resort to the police, we’ve lost the chance for creating a greater sense of neighborliness in the place we live.

Though situations involving how to work with the wild, unfocussed energy of student renters occupied most of the discussion, some time was also spent on the issue of "naturalized" lawns. In Lisa Abbott’s opinion, if you want to have grass over eight inches high, or a messy yard, then go live in the country rather than the city. This was countered by the idea that some in Green Acres would like to work with nature in a way that involves less grass and more gardening—with a corresponding drop in noise and fumes from gas mowers.

All HAND staff agreed that people take the state of their lawns very personally, and said they have been threatened by people who didn’t want anyone telling them what to do with their property!

According to Lisa Abbott, a "naturalized" lawn should look intentional and planned, not just trashy and messy. But of course one person’s mess may be another person’s permaculture garden.

In order to address this issue the city will soon launch a pilot project, details still to be worked out. The thrust of it: if you wish to have a naturalized lawn you will need to contact HAND or the Environmental Commission and let them know your intent.

There was lots more, but hopefully at least this information can help us work constructively with renters and landlords.

Thanks to HAND staff for agreeing to spend the evening with us. One final note: they and other city officials are there for us if we need them. Ideally however, they are the court of last resort, rarely needed if we can communicate with each other in a truly neighborly fashion.

Ann Kreilkamp GANA scribe

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