Cedar Rapids Council Supports Tougher 'Nuisance Property' Ordinance

By Rick Smith, Reporter

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - An assortment of landlords and Realtors asked the City Council last night to wait before passing a new Nuisance Property ordinance that attempts to take on bad landlords and bad tenants as well as other bad property owners with fees and orders to remedy violations.

The council didn't wait, and on a 9-0 vote, it approved the new ordinance. Two additional votes will come in January before the ordinance becomes law.

Council members said the new ordinance, which attempts to define how many of which kinds of behaviors by tenant or landlord or property owner will prompt a property to be labeled a nuisance, can be tweaked along the way.

"But doing nothing is unacceptable," council member Kris Gulick said.

Council member Pat Shey said he gets frequent calls from residents who plead that "it's not right" that they have to live next to house where people party all night, don't mow the yard, let junk pile up and use their house as an operational base for crimes.

"That's what we're trying to get at here," he said.

Council member Scott Olson remembered back some 25 years ago when the city had no basic housing code and then-Mayor Don Canney had him lead a committee to create one. "It's made a difference," Olson said.

Olson and council colleagues Chuck Swore and Ann Poe said the city needs to create a local housing commission to help oversee the implementation of the nuisance ordinance.

Those speaking out against the ordinance particularly dislike the penalties that can come to a landlord based on the criminal behavior that occurs on or near their properties.

Robin Tucker, a Realtor and landlord, called on the council to concentrate on educating tenants and landlords rather than using "the hammer and nail, which is this approach."

Bill Roemerman, a Cedar Rapids attorney who helped Cedar Rapids landlords beat back a similar kind of ordinance in 2011, said crime in neighborhoods is a problem, but the nuisance ordinance doesn't take care of it in the right way. The "fundamental misconception" with the ordinance, he said, is the 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 hinted at the prospects of legal action to stop the ordinance.

Matt Stearns, speaking on behalf of the ACLU of Iowa, called the nuisance ordinance "a vague proposal" that violates the city fair housing duties, does not provide notices of problems to tenants as it does to landlords and will encourage domestic violence victims from calling the police for fear it will lead to eviction.

But there were strong pleas for the council to pass the ordinance.

Joe Lock, executive director of the Affordable Housing Network Inc., said he his agency operates some 800 rental units in the city and from that perch has come to see firsthand the "appalling" conditions that some people in the city live, a problem that he said the new city ordinance will help fix.

Terry Bilsland, president of the Wellington Heights neighborhood Association, accused the landlords who oppose the new ordinance of wanting to protect bad landlords.

Dale Todd, a one-time City Council member and a local property manager, said the city of Cedar Rapids has been talking for 25 years about doing something to take on nuisance properties.

"Cedar Rapids has the weakest, lamest landlord laws on the books," Todd said.

Clark Reike, a Realtor and landlord, said the city needed to impose a more frequent schedule of inspections on below-normal properties.

The nuts and bolts of the city's nuisance ordinance will have several city agencies feeding information about property violations into the same database with quick alerts to property owners of problems at their properties. The city also will create a new city position of nuisance abatement coordinator to manage the enterprise.

A nuisance label will attach to a property if a serious crime occurs at or near a property in a year 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.

The ordinance, which the city has been working on for most of the year, is modeled after an ordinance in Davenport.
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