Longtime Park landlords object to new ordinance

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published December 18, 2013

GROSSE POINTE PARK — A new ordinance designed to crack down on bad landlords and tenants drew fire from what city officials say are some of the many good landlords who operate in the Park.

The City Council — which has been discussing the proposed ordinance for the last several months — unanimously approved it during a meeting Dec. 9, but not before a number of landlords weighed in on it.

Among the changes are requirements that landlords doing business in the city have a license to rent units; that maximum occupancy rules — as determined by the International Property Maintenance Code — be reiterated and posted; and that landlords who don’t live in Wayne, Oakland or Macomb counties designate a local agent as a contact and the person who’s responsible for operating the rental in compliance with city regulations. And starting next fall, City Manager Dale Krajniak said landlords will need to register each unit and provide the same information that the city previously required for issuance of park passes. This replaces the former requirement for park passes for rentals, he said.

Current certificate of occupancy rules call for an inspection every three years, or within a year after there’s a change of occupants, Krajniak said. Under the new ordinance, a certificate of occupancy inspection would be required every two years. To keep it “revenue neutral” for landlords, he said they were calling for a fee of $100 for this inspection; it’s $150 for the inspection every three years, which breaks down to $50 per year, Krajniak explained.

The ordinance doesn’t impact existing certificates of occupancy, he said, pointing out that the new rules kick in when the existing certificates expire.

Administrators recommended what Krajniak said was a “nominal fee” of $10 for landlord licenses, which also was approved by the council. He said the license would remain valid until there was a change, such as a new manager for a property. Landlords will need to apply for these licenses within the next 60 days.

Another change is the requirement that landlords do a background check on prospective tenants. City Attorney Dennis Levasseur said they’re recommending a couple of “easily accessible” state and federal websites to look for criminal history.

“We’re not suggesting who you should rent to, but we think it’s a good practice not only for the landlords but for the community at large,” he said.

However, landlords would only need to provide “proof” of their background check upon request. City Council member Daniel Clark said a landlord’s license to rent in the city “could be revoked” if there was an increasingly serious string of problems.

But landlord Joseph Wagner, who lives in Grosse Pointe Woods, challenged the background check requirement.

“Why would that (requirement) be any different for a purchaser?” he asked, noting that people who buy homes don’t have to be investigated before they can purchase property. “Do you know who you’re selling your house to in the city? I see some potential for discrimination here.”

Levasseur and other officials denied that the ordinance is discriminatory.

“In no way does the city tell you who you can rent to,” City Council member Robert Denner said.

City Council member James Robson said this provision is similar to ones in ordinances the Park reviewed from other communities. He said it’s intended to encourage landlords to look into their tenants and, if they see that some people have a long criminal history, perhaps decline renting to them.

“It really is nothing new, and it’s a tremendous improvement from what we have,” Robson said of the new ordinance.

Tom Stieber, an owner-occupant landlord on Trombley, said that during the last 30 years of interviewing and approving potential tenants, “I’ve never had a problem” with one of them, and “I don’t need a 15-page document telling me what I’m subjected to.” He said owner-occupants should be subject to different rules, given that they share a roof with their tenants and are automatically going to be careful about whom they approve.

“I think the issue is crime,” Stieber said. “We want good tenants. But there are other ways to (attract) good tenants.”

Clark argued that the new ordinance “doesn’t involve an unwarranted intrusion on who you’re going to rent to.” He said the websites recommended by the city for background checks, including the Michigan Department of Corrections’ Offender Tracking Information System, or OTIS, are “easy to navigate.”

“We’re not telling you what to do with the data (you uncover),” Clark told landlords in attendance. “You just let your fingers do the walking.”

City Council member Daniel Grano said the city prosecutor has discretion over whom they decide to pursue legal action against. Levasseur continued that if a landlord has taken the steps required by the city and ends up with a problem tenant or problem occupants, if the landlord starts the eviction process, “There’s no chance my office will cite you.” Levasseur said they recognize “it takes a while” to evict someone. However, he said if the city notifies a landlord that there is an excess number of people living in a nonhabitable space, such as an attic, the landlord is responsible for taking action.

“We would expect you to notify us of additional tenants that move in,” Clark said.

The argument from the landlord side was that they don’t always know when this happens.

Denner said the city has established “an escalating process” of punishment for noncompliant landlords, with removal of their landlord license as the ultimate, and final, punitive action.

“It’s the last resort,” City Council member Laurie Arora concurred.

Denner said the background checks only apply to new tenants, not to ones already dwelling in rental units.

Arora said Park officials “tried to strike a delicate balance between responsible landlords … and going after irresponsible landlords.”

And Robson said that the council meeting attendees constituted “the good landlords,” not “the slum landlords, the indifferent landlords” city officials hoped to address with these changes.

“If we pass this legislation, it’s going to improve property values, improve the community” and improve the caliber of tenants, Robson said before the council vote.

Clark, a member of the Ordinance Review Committee that worked on this ordinance, thanked city administrators and the Public Safety Department for their ideas, along with suggestions from residents.

“This provides the city with a new tool in addressing issues we’ve been dealing with for some time now,” he said. “Our desire was to address the problem sufficiently without putting an undue and unnecessary burden on landlords, the vast majority of whom are (in compliance with city regulations).”

To read the full ordinance, visit www.grossepointepark.org.