Cedar Rapids City Hall has its Eyes on Landlords

By Rick Smith, Reporter

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - Landlords aren't flying under the City Hall radar.

On Tuesday, to the displeasure of some landlords, the City Council voted final approval of a new ordinance on nuisance properties that will confront landlords and other property owners with fees and demands to remedy violations if they don't keep their properties up.

Then last night, members of the City Council were back at it, this time asking landlords at a City Hall forum to weigh in on how the city should revise its existing rental housing law with a thought that landlords should conduct criminal background checks on tenants and should attend periodic training sessions.

Most of those who spoke about mandatory criminal background checks of tenants did not object to the idea.

Bob Mitchell, a director with Landlords of Linn County, said making such tenant background checks mandatory was a good idea, but only if the city intended to penalize landlords who did not participate. Mitchell noted that the police departments in Dubuque and Davenport conduct the criminal background checks for landlords for free, but he said he could live with a fee for the service if necessary. He suggested that the city had proposed a $6 fee per check.

Mari Davis, a property manager and landlord, said most landlords already do background checks for more than a prospective tenant's criminal background, but she said landlords needed the help of the Police Department with criminal checks in other states. Landlord Tony Christopherson agreed, but he said the intent wasn't to avoid renting to those who have lived elsewhere, but to get a complete background check on potential tenants.

Realtor Sheryl Jahnel said mandatory background checks would help keep criminals out of Cedar Rapids' rental properties and would force them to look to other cities for a place to locate and live. Providing Police Department background checks for free would encourage landlords to use them, Jahnel said.

Last night's forum was hosted by council members Monica Vernon, Pat Shey and Justin Shields, to whom Davis told the story of a Benton County property owner she knew who recently decided to rent a rural home without a background check to the first person who showed up with cash to pay rent.

"I told he was setting himself up for a meth lab in his house," said Davis, to drive home the need for background checks.

Several landlords said they favored education for landlords, but none who spoke sounded enamored mandatory annual training, which is an idea that City Hall has floated.

Landlord Dick Rehman said 1,900 of the city's 2,000 landlords are responsible and do not rent out nuisance properties. So why mandate training? he asked. He called it "a bad idea."

Others suggested making training sessions available and optional or perhaps mandating them for new landlords and landlords who have been found to have nuisance properties.

Landlord Don Steichen said the city doesn't make every business owner who opens or runs a business take a class, so why should landlords have to do so. However, Robin Kash, also a landlord, said landlords that don't take care of their properties harm the neighborhood and community around them. Periodic landlord training classes, Kash said, could remind landlords "of their obligations to the community."

Council member Vernon also asked the landlords to weigh in the city's system of rental inspections.

Rehman suggested a variable system in which the city's inspections would be tied to the number and severity of violations at particular properties. Problem landlords might get inspected every year and the best landlords every seven years, he said.

Paul Greene, of Greene's Refrigeration, Heating and Cooling, said the latest furnaces probably need inspected less often than every five years while older furnaces in rental properties in the city might need a look each year, he said.

At the close of last night's session, council member Justin Shields thanked the landlords for being "respectful" and putting "animosity" aside.

The reference seemed to be to the disapproval of some landlords and Realtors to the council's final passage on Tuesday of the city's new ordinance on nuisance properties.

Particularly distasteful to some landlords is the ordinance's push to define how many of which kinds of behavior by tenant or landlord can prompt the city to label a property a nuisance.

Bill Roemerman, a Cedar Rapids attorney who helped Cedar Rapids landlords beat back a similar kind of ordinance in 2011, has said the "fundamental misconception" of the nuisance ordinance is the thought that landlords can control the behavior of their tenants. And if they can't, they can be fined for their tenant's misdeeds, said Roemerman, who has not ruled out legal action.

The ACLU of Iowa also has objected to the nuisance property law, saying it will discourage domestic violence victims from calling the police for fear it will lead to eviction.
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