Draft Northfield rental licensing code updates unveiled this week call for the introduction of a four-tier licensing system and are intended to include more renter protections.

The draft, unveiled during an April 27 Housing and Redevelopment Authority meeting, is reportedly intended to help renters who live in buildings with repeated code violations. Perhaps the most prevalent in Northfield has been Northfield Estates, which has incurred relatively frequent code violations and therefore been subject to more inspections.

The tiers

According to the draft changes, introduced by Alissa Harrington with Flaherty & Hood, landlords in the first tier are considered those with minimal complaints and violations and are licensed for two years. Second tier licenses are for one year with more frequent inspections and are intended for new landlords who are trying to learn the ropes of overseeing property, or former first-tier landlords who the city deems need to improve their properties due to property/nuisance code violations. The intention would be for the landlords in this tier to have an action plan with “active steps” to improve.

The third tier would be for six months with even more frequent inspections and would include landlords who have property with more frequent violations. Landlords in the third tier would need to immediately fix problems. If the landlord does not repair their problems, the city could then deem the property a nuisance, triggering administrative code violations and possible suspension/revocation of rental licenses.

In many cities, Harrington noted building officials, sworn police officers and the city administrator have the authority to issue administrative citations for violating rental codes, a step she said would ease the pressure on city staff. Such violations are considered civil rather than criminal. Administrative citations would include an appeals process for landlords. She said the proposed changes also creates a paper trail of evidence when a landlord’s rental license is revoked. However, Harrington added that landlords will still be able to be charged criminally in certain situations.

Under the current code, there are two types of rental licensing: Two-year licenses and those authorized on a short-term basis of less than 30 days, considered specific when the landlord is trying to sell a house.

Community Development Director Mitzi Baker noted that only a “small minority” of rentals create most of the challenges while many more comply. Harrington noted rental housing is licensed because of the considerable power difference between renters and the landlords they rely on for basic necessities.

Harrington stressed the changes were crafted with the understanding that renters are now considered more prominent, invested members of society who are less transient than when previous rental licensing codes were introduced. She added the updates came after community feedback was gathered and to ensure that staff would be able to focus on enforcing rental codes with better tools to prevent already problematic rental situations from worsening.

Before, Harrington said, despite the chance the city could threaten to suspend rental licenses, there seemed to be a lack of enforcement tools to protect tenants. Another goal she saw to revamping the codes was removing outdated or redundant provisions in the current system.

Baker noted during the meeting that Northfield, like many other cities, suspended in-home inspections for occupied units following the onset of COVID-19. She said the pace of pre-pandemic rental inspections has not returned since.

HRA Board member George Zuccolotto, a Northfield city councilor, asked why the city couldn’t waive the rule that rental housing be limited to 20% in R-1 and R-2 districts to ease Northfield’s near-zero vacancy rate and introduce more rentals. Baker called the question one with a “fairly significant community interest” that would likely need to be introduced in another debate to prevent the code changes from being bogged down.

The Northfield City Council is expected to discuss the proposed license updates next month before taking final action at a future meeting.

Reach Associate Editor Sam Wilmes at 507-645-1115. © Copyright 2021 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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