Lansing City Council to target local slumlords

Spadafore to create tenants' rights panel

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Deadbeat landlords be warned: The Lansing City Council is fed up with your neglected rental properties.

Lansing residents for years have voiced complaints to Council members over shoddy living conditions inside rental homes and apartments. Reports of rats, bed bugs, dysfunctional heaters, broken locks and more have made their way to City Hall. While code enforcement does its best, landlord accountability remains a concern.

Council President Peter Spadafore is determined to put an end to Lansing’s pervasive slumlord reign.

Spadafore said he will soon announce plans to form the city’s first Housing and Resident Safety Committee. The goal: reach out to residents, gauge the strength of Lansing’s existing laws on housing and code enforcement and, if some landlords need to be held accountable, ready and arm the Council to hold their feet closer to the fire.

The committee will also be tasked with exploring additional protections for local homeowners as well.

“Some landlords and tenants have said they believe the city could be doing more and think our laws could be changed to better protect folks in the community living in rental properties,” Spadafore said. “Ultimately, this is all about learning and finding out what changes might be needed to ensure greater resident safety in this city.”

The ad-hoc committee hasn’t yet been formed, but Spadafore said he expects its members to meet with stakeholders, community members and city staff to ascertain strengths and weaknesses in rental enforcement. He’ll also charge the committee with producing a recommendation on how to beef up local laws by August.

“There are some really bad landlords in this city who are not doing good by their duties to take care of their housing,” said Councilman Brandon Betz. “It’s really an issue with certain landlords, especially those who live out-of-state, but my goal is to make sure there are safe, great housing conditions for everyone living in Lansing.”

Betz’ election platform last year, when he defeated incumbent Jody Washington in the First Ward, was partially built on plans to reform housing laws and bolster protections for both tenants and homeowners in Lansing. He has since met with several dozen local residents and has been bouncing ideas off other Council members for the last few weeks. And the new committee is the launchpad for his plans.

“A lot of landlords are in compliance, but it appears that there are about 15 who live out of state, own the majority of our housing stock and are causing the most problems,” Betz said. “They don’t have that personal pride in what Lansing looks like. To us, they’re not even voters. They’re giving other landlords a bad name.”

U.S. Census data shows that about half of Lansing residents between 2014 and 2018 were renters, each paying a gross median rent of $807. And last year, about 38% of Lansing rentals were found to be unsafe and lacked a certificate showing they passed inspection, according to records compiled last year by the Lansing State Journal.

And although last year’s budget set aside some extra cash for code enforcement, more work can always be done.

“For me, we’ve got an issue,” said Councilwoman Patricia Spitzley. “We’ve got an issue with landlords who aren’t doing the right thing. We’ve seen this play out recently at Autumn Ridge. Clearly, we’re doing everything we can do to help, but we’re getting some pretty horrible pictures from residents about their living conditions.”

Shoddy rental conditions in Lansing were put on full display last month when dozens of residents of Autumn Ridge were pink-tagged after their apartments fell out of compliance with city code. It was a clear warning to management: bring your properties up to snuff or else they’ll need to be vacated. City officials said the issue might develop into a lawsuit against the apartment complex, but they don’t want to put tenants on the street.

“I can’t tell you how many calls I’ve had from people who are scared, thinking they’re going to be evicted,” Spitzley added. “They don’t know their rights as tenants, and I think we need to do a better job reaching out to our residents. This rental problem needs some solutions, and it might take an ordinance to get things moving.”

In addition to expanded education — like flyers that describe tenants’ rights in the event of unsafe living conditions with every lease agreement — Betz also wants landlords to have some financial skin in the game.

“On the tenant side, we have some of the least protections among cities across the country,” Betz said. “I want to make sure there’s an easier legal recourse. Maybe tenants can be allowed to take the money they would’ve paid in rent and fix these issues for themselves. Maybe code enforcement could do it for them and bill the landlord.”

The city of Jackson passed an ordinance last year that requires landlords to repay costs associated with rehousing tenants that were evicted over unsafe living conditions. Officials said about a dozen residents have made use of the new law. The goal: put pressure on landlords to ensure their properties remain safe, or else they pay a price.

“The city had to vacate these apartments and was actually paying to put families in motels until another housing situation could be found,” said a spokesman for the city of Jackson. “We weren’t under any obligation to do that, but we didn’t want to make these people homeless. This law ensured the taxpayers didn’t foot the bill.”

Deputy Lansing City Attorney Joe Abood questioned the legality of Jackson’s ordinance and recommended that City Council hold off on passing any laws until the city of Jackson can be challenged on its ordinance in court. A spokesman for Jackson, however, said the ordinance has been working without a hitch for several months.

“We have a lot of tenants’ rights within our ordinances,” added Lansing Mayor Andy Schor. “I will certainly look at what is being proposed and go from there, but they do have rights. We alert them of their rights. We alert them when the building isn’t up to code. We’re already working with landlords to bring properties up to code.”

Betz said he plans to gather more community input before moving forward with any proposed ordinances or changes to how the city handles code enforcement, with a goal of adding additional tenant protections by 2021.

“I don’t want to punish people,” Betz added. “I just want to make sure our tenants are safe.”

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