Cities versus Landlords: Housing policies should target slumlords and homelessness alike


Both Minneapolis and St. Paul have had recent high-profile battles against neglectful landlords, many of whom own several problematic properties. The most recent case is that of Westminster Court apartments in St. Paul, whose 60 units racked up 600 code violations last year, according to the Pioneer Press. The city condemned the buildings in June after which a new owner decided to completely vacate the buildings for rehabilitation. One notorious Minneapolis landlord has fought protracted court battles, which could impact 2,000 tenants.

No one should have to put up with slumlords: not tenants, neighbors, or cities. The Catch-22, however, is that the Twin Cities’ rental vacancy rate is only 2.8 percent—the lowest in ten years. With vacancies plummeting five percent in the past year and rents rising accordingly, some tenants are left with nowhere else to go when their landlord loses their rental license.

Residents in the worst properties often have significant barriers that have kept them from accessing better homes in the first place: low incomes, criminal records, large families (subpar landlords might look the other way on overcrowding), etc. As the market becomes more crowded the best landlords can be even more selective than they were before. Some folks just get shut out.

Cities are absolutely right to defend their housing stock and residents from slumlords, but those efforts also need to protect residents at risk of homelessness. Investing into their property inspections departments could be one way for cities to catch and work with problem landlords before the situations become dire. This may prove especially helpful for smaller landlords who have good intentions but just get overwhelmed. Many such people bought up foreclosed homes (or rented out their own home when they were unable to sell) without realizing just how demanding it is to be a landlord.

Improving property inspections will also attract good landlords who may otherwise be frustrated by complicated requirements and a lack of city support. (My partner and I own a rental property and I can’t tell you how much time he spends navigating the poorly-run property inspections bureaucracy.)

Cities can also offer effective police partnerships, landlord and tenant education, strong block clubs, and connections to tenant advocates. They can welcome quality affordable-housing developers and nonprofits to create homes that are neighborhood assets, not blights. Cities should regularly examine and update their rental licensing requirements to ensure that landlords who have proven to be neglectful—or haven’t proven themselves at all—have limited access to new licenses. Licensing requirements should be attainable for diligent landlords but harsh in punishing those who just don’t care.

The entire housing market has been chaotic for years, affecting both homeowners and renters. Cities are facing challenges they never imagined to maintain a decent and affordable housing stock. Policy improvements can help them navigate this “new normal.”