Landlord Questions on Council Pending List
re: rental properties and nuisances
My First Email Reply
The pending list is Council’s way of keeping track of items they deem important. When the items actually get discussed depends upon when the staff and city clerk get them back on the Council schedule. For example you’ll see some items that have been on the list for months and sometimes even years — so just because it’s on the list doesn’t mean Council will necessarily be talking about it anytime soon. None of the items are planned for discussion this week.
That being said the rental property issues are a concern right now and we will probably try to get the research work done in November/December with discussions possibly as soon as January/February. That can always change depending on changing priorities but that’s a reasonable estimate for now.
I think you know the issues — party nuisances, illegal boarding houses, property upkeep, trash, etc. To some degree these issues will always be a part of a mix of a college community but there’s also limits that neighborhoods can tolerate. The fact is landlords have chosen to operate a business in the middle of neighborhoods so like any business they have to be sensitive to the impact that their customers have in those neighborhoods — and admittedly choosing to operate a business in a neighborhood brings with it certain costs which may not be there if your property was in the middle of the woods or in an industrial district. And when your business impacts are viewed to be detrimental by your neighbors, those citizens will look to engage their government to intervene on their behalf.
It’s really no more complicated than that and it happens all the time, particularly with businesses over environmental issues — which to some degree is exactly what the rental property issue is all about. Just in my first 18 months here in Kent I’ve had to work with a couple of different businesses to address adjacent neighbor concerns with the impacts of their business on the quality of their life in the neighborhood.
So this isn’t a landlord witch-hunt, it’s routine business dealings that go on all the time. The difference that I’ve seen is that traditional businesses are very aware of the importance of being a good community neighbor so they typically go out of their way to respond to neighbor concerns. For example, I have fast food businesses that understand that their customers are sometimes prone to toss their wrappers and cups outside around their buildings so they voluntarily send their employees around the perimeter of the property to pick up trash a couple of times a day.
Was it the business’ fault that the wrappers got tossed by their customers — of course not – but it is a consequence of their business transaction so they step up and assume more responsibility to solve it. Even if the trash isn’t theirs they understand that part of the cost of doing business means making sure that their business is not perceived as adversely affecting the neighbors. To be honest, I haven’t seen the landlords demonstrate that kind of sensitivity like most businesses. Maybe they do and perhaps you can help educate me in that area so I can better defend the landlords when I am confronted with these types of complaints.
As we’ve been looking to see what other college cities have done I have to tell you most everybody is uping the ante and tightening codes and restrictions to try to legislate changes. At our last Council meeting the statement was made to “take back OUR town” so there is a fair amount of frustration with the issues that tend to coincide with rental properties.
Is all the criticism fair — probably not. Are all rental properties bad — of course not. But if we’re ever going to get out in front of this issue, the landlords need to step up and raise the bar. How that bar gets raised is actually up to you. Like any regulated group you can choose to wait for the city to try to impose tighter restrictions or you can organize yourselves and adopt higher standards on your own that you work voluntarily to uphold.
I’m new enough here that I don’t have any particular history with landlords but I keep wondering why the landlords haven’t made the effort to work together to prevent the problems rather than only organizing to oppose any changes. For example, why not get together and hire a trash collector for all the rental properties in the neighborhood rather than the “free for all” that exists out there and exacerbates the trashy image of rental properties. For that matter why not join together for property maintenance issues and hire a company to handle the neighborhood? Share the costs and show the kind of good faith effort that the problem needs. I know there’s a lot of do it yourselfers that are landlords but there’s too much inconsistency in the quality of the product — set your own standards amongst yourselves and let the community know what those standards are — and then of course live up to them.
I’m not trying to muddy the water but my job is to help solve problems so I offer my thoughts merely to provide an outside view of the neighborhood issues. I realize being a rental property owner brings a lot of problems for landlords too, but the difference is the landlords chose to make it their business and if you’re going to make the choice, you need to do it right. That’s just good business.
Thanks for the follow-up email. And I actually mean that because the one thing that continues to confound me on this issue is the lack of constructive communication which I think has led to many misunderstandings which in turn creates frustration, tension and eventually animosity — none of which is necessary nor is it beneficial to any of us.
Unfortunately it seems as if the rational discussion of these problems has a hard time breaking through the emotionalism that surrounds these issues. Don’t get me wrong, I totally understand why emotions run high, for the landlords these houses are often a significant part of their income and also their retirement, and likewise for the residents these homes are their piece of the American Dream that also happens to be the largest asset they’ll ever own. So the stakes are high on both sides which unfortunately leaves little room for the kind of “give and take” that happens when people have competing priorities.
To me this isn’t a right or wrong issue, both the landlords and the residents have legitimate property rights at stake here. And in this great American experiment called Democracy the local government is asked to be there to protect individual rights while also looking out for the public good. Good luck choosing sides in this context and that’s why I don’t want to pick sides, I just want to help reduce the tension and find some common ground. What’s happening today isn’t working, so the question is how do we inspire or compel change?
I’ll say it again, I have no predisposition against landlords and their rights as business owners. I celebrate business in all it’s forms and I want them to be successful, very successful. I admit that I want that success to be because they provide a great service to the students and they produce a quality product that is admired by anyone that walks down the street and not by cutting corners at the expense of their neighbors as well as their reputation and of the landlords around them.
I don’t pretend to know your business and I have never personally been wronged by any landlord so I don’t have an axe to grind here but I can walk down College Street and see that some landlords do a good job of selecting the “best” tenants and they work hard to keep the place in good shape. Their business model works.
But likewise I can also see that not every landlord seems strives to meet those standards, and just like in any other business there are some that choose to reinvest the bare minimum only after they’ve been cited for problems. That’s fine if that’s the business model those landlords choose to run their business by and we’ll play our part in issuing citations and trying to be a regulatory body but frankly that game of cat and mouse isn’t particularly productive for any of us, but in the absence of a discussion of alternatives that’s the wheel that continues to get run on.
In a perfect world, I’d love for you and your business colleagues to come to me and say, “Dave, we’re tired of being treated like second class businesses, and we’re tired of operating under the threat of stricter rules and greater scrutiny so we’re going to be game changers. We’re taking the initiative and bringing forward a list of suggestions that we think will work better than the game of “catch me if you can.” We believe that we can do better as businesses and we’re raising our own bar. We’re not doing this purely out of charity. We recognize that the market dynamics in student housing is changing and more and more students expect better living conditions, they want amenities and housing that fits their lifestyle. We’ve been able to live on our location but the market around us is developing very competitive alternatives and if we don’t do something we’re going to lose market share and more importantly we’ll lose our ability to command the kind of rental rates that we need to be profitable. The fundamental business axioms apply to us too — we’ve got to spend money to make money and that’s what we’re going to do. In return we want the city to offer tax incentives that favor reinvestment in our properties. We want the same zero interest loans you offer downtown businesses to improve their facades. We want to use an assessment to upgrade our streets, sidewalks and streetscape because those things matter to today’s rental customers.”
You get the idea. I want you to maximize your return on investment in your properties through demand, not supply side management. In other words you’ll be able to stimulate demand for your properties through smart re-investment. To me, the fundamental issue is how do we raise the bar together? I don’t have the answers but if this continues to play out as it is now, you’re right, the city will be looking at pushing the envelope on issues of enforcement and you’ll be backed into a corner — which is never good when the goal is collaborative resolution.
Sorry for the long-winded explanation but I figured you deserved to hear what I was thinking.