WILLMAR — Willmar’s new rental inspector has been busy since he joined city council in March, finding a home for standing sewage and conducting some sanitation — actions by the city to fix violations of the Rental Housing Code.
The existence of this inspector position has also brought to light the need to change city ordinances to allow the planning and development department to address the issues it finds in the community.
Willmar Rental Inspector Ryan Tilleman and Planning and Development Director Justice Walker spoke to Willmar City Council last month about what they see in the community.
“I’d say the overall reception is generally pretty positive,” Walker told the council that he now has a hire inspector. “People have been very grateful that they now have a point of contact to call if they know someone is having problems or issues with their landlord (or) they feel like their neighbor isn’t picking something up. I think there used to be this idea that the city has an ordinance for something, but the city doesn’t do anything about it.”
However, a rental housing inspector is uncovering some major issues that need a more systematic review, Walker said, noting that the city is already learning about property owners and identifying potential problem landlords.
Since word of Tilleman’s new job broke, local tenants have been keeping him busy with complaints about their rental properties.
One of the planning department’s goals is to fill a gap in education about the rights and responsibilities of landlords and tenants, Walker said. This includes building relationships with some organizations in the city that provide rental resources that the city can refer renters to.
“We kind of need to be in a role where we can have our ear to the ground and also be more aware and open to let people know that we’re here as a resource for you to protect you in a way. Walker told the council.
A “lively” community also causes some problems with rented accommodation, as the language barrier can cause problems in understanding rights and obligations. “They don’t know what they’re entitled to, they don’t know what to ask for, they don’t know who to report their problem to,” Walker said.
Before sharing photos of some problematic properties in Willmar, Walker informed the council that this is not the norm in Willmar.
“Some of these exercises sometimes draw the negative out of what’s going on in a community and don’t really speak to what the whole is, so I want to say, by extension, I think the vast majority of our owners and a large one Majority of our landlords in the city are good landowners, good landlords,” he said. “What you will see in it is not normal. Not all rental properties are like this, but the problems are still big enough to need to be addressed.”
The first photo Tilleman shared was of a rental apartment that had raw sewage in one of the units for six weeks. He condemned the house and provided lodging facilities for the two families who had to vacate it.
Tilleman also shared pictures of homes with mold issues and some pictures of rental properties with garbage buildup on the property. Property owners are given a mandate by the city to take care of any problems that exist in their rental properties.
If the property owner or renter refuses to take care of the garbage, which includes old equipment and obsolete vehicles, city employees will fix the problem by cleaning up the garbage and charging the property owner for staff time .
While problem landlords are identified with ongoing issues with their properties, the city currently has no process for revoking their licenses if the issues are not addressed, Walker told the council.
Currently, the city is issuing rental licenses for a three-year period, rather than renewing them annually, he said. One option would be a tiered approach for new or problem landlords, issuing an annual license for a specified period of time before allowing progressively longer license terms.
There should also be a procedure to remove a landlord’s rental license for failing to fix problems with their properties, such as an ordinance with penalties that will allow the city to address some of the issues, he added.
Walker also wants an expedited process for issues that need to be addressed and a better way to take care of cuts so it doesn’t fall on the city’s public works department. He suggested possibly hiring an outside body to do mitigations.
Justin Ask, Willmar City Councilman, wanted to know how long it would be before the Planning and Development Department could recommend ordinance changes to address rental housing issues.
Noting how busy the department is at the moment, Walker said she will likely come to the council between late fall 2022 and the end of the year.
Willmar Councilwoman Audrey Nelsen encouraged Walker to ask the council for additional resources when they are needed to solve rental housing problems.
Walker assured the council he would, adding that they are still learning what the community can expect and where the city can help.
“You have to be nimble with some of these things,” he said, adding that there are things the department wants to address aggressively, but there are also questions about where people who can’t pass a background check can live.
“Some of the slumlords serve a function in the market,” he continued, noting that the term “slumlord” is not a term he should really use, but a simple term to explain his point of view towards the council. “It’s nimble enough…do we want some of these places to have minimal restrictions for some people who can’t qualify to live in other places?” Or do we want to take that away and supplant them altogether?”
In conclusion, Walker stated: “[These are]big macro-level questions that we have that we’re trying to work through fully and figure out how we’re going to enforce this and what we’re going to take into account in doing so. It’s about identifying these things and learning the process and understanding the extent to which these issues exist. Are some of these singular issues or some of these really community-wide issues that we need to be really aggressive about?”