Podcast 85: Nuisance Abatement Laws for Landlords

Nuisance abatement laws are community policing efforts that use complaints, violations and even recurring police visits to improve quality of life and solve safety problems within municipalities. In this episode of Night School, we’ll examine nuisance abatement laws and evaluate what’s good and what’s bad about them for landlords.

Transcription: Nuisance Abatement Laws: Good or Bad for Landlords?

Jeff: Welcome to Landlord University Night School. I’m Jeff Pearson. I’m here with my co-host, Stephen White. Hello, Stephen, how are you doing this evening?
Stephen: Hey Jeff, pretty good. So in today’s episode, we’re going to be talking about a nuisance abatement laws, nuisance abatement ordinances that some municipalities have. And to be honest with you I’m pretty surprised it took this many episodes in for us to cover this because it’s something that we have a lot of experience within RentPrep, we have several government contracts that we work directly with municipalities like city of Cedar Rapids in Iowa and help them with their abatement ordinances.
And I live in a municipality that has an abatement ordinance and it’s terrible. So I’ve seen both sides of the spectrum. I’ve seen my very own municipality that’s doing it wrong in my opinion versus some places like Cedar Rapids who really lay the groundwork for a lot of other municipalities to follow and really build a good program that benefits landlords and does not punish landlords.
Jeff: Well, let’s start by talking about the community that’s doing it wrong, or not as effectively as it should be, and then we’ll take that and we’ll move into the community that’s doing it well and using it to benefit the community as well as the property owners.
Stephen: Yeah, well, first we’ll start with defining what is nuisance abatement ordinance and a municipality will define it as identifying nuisance properties. So properties that need to have police calls called out to it or fire calls or anything where it just starts to become a nuisance for the town or for neighbors.
It could be that they didn’t clean up their front yard. It could be that they’ve had several police calls out there for whatever reason domestic violence, drugs, loud noise, whatever the case may be but at some point, somebody deemed them to be a nuisance and usually the police are involved in it. And so in my own community, they’ve developed this program where, if the police show up to the property three times to address a situation, the landlord will start being charged for it.
Jeff: Really?
Stephen: So the municipality sees it as, “Well, you’re wasting our tax dollar money because you’ve got this tenants in there was a real pain in the neck and it’s your responsibility as the landlord. So it’s your fault that he’s there and we’ve got a deal with it and if we have to deal with it too many times we’re going to start charging you.” and that’s exactly what they do.
And the downside or the problem with what they’re doing is there’s no communication between the police department and the landlord. So the first time the landlord gets a fine, which is $50, that’s the first time that there are hearing that there’s a problem. So at that point they’ve already had three police calls out there are three nuisance calls out because of the property and they’re already getting fined. The problem is, the fine goes up exponentially for every violation or every nuisance call thereafter. So it goes from $50 to $100 to $500 to $1000.
And I can understand where they were coming from when they designed this law and thinking, “Okay we’re gonna eliminate slum lording. We’re gonna make the landlord’s to take action and get rid of these tenants and just completely get them out of our community and let them be somebody else’s problem. And if we motivate the landlord enough through punishment the landlord will take action and will evict these people and will not renew their lease,” or you know they’re ultimately the ones who are in control of whether or not this person is gonna be staying in the community or not.
Jeff: Yeah, I agreed with you. First and foremost, if you’re going to have something like that you should be advising landlord every time there’s a call. Because every one of those three calls have an impact on your potential of getting fined the first $50. It’s bad enough that you have to worry about that to deal with it but if you have to wonder whether or not somebody’s going to hit that limit then all sudden you get this $50 fine and then will buy the way they got called in the next night and the night after that and so by the time you got your first letter, you’ve already gone over your limit by three. I’m sure that happens.
Stephen: Oh yeah, for sure. Well, I saw this happen from concept to inception and I saw the resistance and then I saw the backlash of landlords who were punished exactly the way you just described and you know it’s not fair to them and I agreed it really isn’t fair. They weren’t given any notice and all the sudden now they got to pay all these fines and of course yeah, it does motivate them to fix the problem but there’s definitely a better way of going about it.
Jeff: Sure and if you have a tenant who hits two or three fines, so they’ve had the police called out five or six times and when you got the first notice, you started the process which would normally… I mean at that point you need to start an eviction process because what else you gonna do? You have to get them out of there so that you don’t incur the outrageous fines that are kind of come down the road.
And so you start the process and that takes you two weeks, a month, a month and a half to get through the eviction process and all of a sudden they’ve had more calls, which means more money on you and what do you do? So I agree that is a little bit excessive and I understand what they’re trying to accomplish and I understand putting the responsibility ultimately on the landlord but at what point do you start by putting the responsibility on the tenant, the person who’s making the phone calls to the police?
Stephen: Right. The biggest problem is, “Okay, this tenant is a problem. They’re a nuisance. They’re clearly the problem.” They eventually get evicted and then what? Now they move somewhere else, two streets down, a different landlord, unbeknownst to him this tenant was a problem for the other landlord and now it’s just a new problem at a different address.
Stephen: Yeah exactly.
Stephen: So there’s a lot of holes in the system for sure. There’s a lot of problems and unfortunately you know when you’re dealing with an ordinance and a municipality you have to get it right while you’re building it because to change it when it’s already made, when it’s already done and the ink’s dry and it’s signed and that’s what it is you know it’s a lot harder to go back and get something right and you just get it right from the start.
And so the example that I’ll give you of who’s doing it right is the city of Cedar Rapids. I was with them in the in the development process. I help them understand the importance of performing and conducting background checks. We help them to really come up with a good system for, not only communication but having a municipality know who’s living at what places. Because that’s important for them to know yes who’s a problem and where and when to share that information you know so you’re protecting landlords in the future as well.
So what the city of Cedar Rapids is doing that’s so different than anybody else is number one, their primary focus is communication. If there’s a police call or a violation they’re going to let the landlord know within 24 hours. And that alone, I mean we could probably stop the conversation right there and say, “Okay that makes so much more sense to have a great line of communication,” like you said, the landlord’s informed of this process the entire time and knows what’s happening and can deal with it much, much earlier on you know on that first violation versus on the third or the fifth when you’re already getting fined. That’s step number one, having good communication.
Step number two, city of Cedar Rapids really focused on the value of preventing the problem vs reactively dealing with the problem. So what they had the idea of is, “Let’s go in and negotiate pricing for background checks so that we can make it available to all the landlords who are registered as a landlord and we know that these landlords are and that in their city they have to be registered and they have to register what properties they’re renting as part of their database system of understanding who’s where.”
And so if they’ve got the ability to give the landlords access to cheaper tenant screening. And they’ve done this because they figured, “Okay, this is an ordinance that we’re gonna pass. We have to make it reasonable. We can’t make this outrageous cost on people. We’re gonna have a lot of resistance from landlords if we’re not doing things that are gonna benefit them.”
That’s one of the things they did the negotiated pricing and every landlord in Cedar Rapids gets a significant discount on their screening process so they can look and make sure this person doesn’t have evictions, they don’t have criminal records. And one of the biggest issues for Cedar Rapids in particular, was they were getting a lot of transient criminals. Criminals coming in across state lines and moving to Cedar Rapids for some reason.
It was kind of like a stop off for them and so they were taking in a lot of other people’s problems and they started to realize, “We don’t wanna do that anymore. We wanna keep those people out of the city limits and have a better control of who’s renting within the city. We don’t want other cities’ problems basically.”
So not only giving landlord to access to screening, less expensive screening, building a network of information to be able to communicate with the landlords and be able to track what these tenants are doing and where they’re going. You know, again you’re not really fixing the problem in your community if that person gets evicted and they’re no stranger to being evicted anyway and then they end up moving down the street or two blocks over and they’re causing the same problem.
Jeff: Right.
Stephen: I think they’ve got a good…and I’ll tell you another big difference is Cedar Rapids took over a year to develop this program. I mean it was, like I said, that red tape that you jump through in the beginning before it’s made to make sure that it’s correct, that’s what these municipalities need to do, make sure they get it right the first time.
To make sure that they’re building something that really is beneficial to the community in every sense not just to the police force that doesn’t want to deal with the nuisance calls, but the landlords that you know ultimately you want these landowners to stay investing in your community and into in to build a good community and they’re a huge part of that.
So there’s little things that they’re doing, they’re so different than any other municipal program that I’ve seen and people are starting to take note and you know even in one of the larger cities near me they’re in communication with Cedar Rapids just to get an idea of what they’re doing and how it’s working.
People are noticing and people are trying to do the same thing because landlords are not okay with just getting random fines and blindly too, not even knowing that it’s coming and next thing you know you get a fine and of course if you don’t pay your gonna have a tax lien put against your property and there’s no way to get away from it. So you have to pay the fine and it kind of feels like a shakedown in a lot of ways to these landlords and I can’t blame them.
Jeff: No. Not at all and they’re obviously it makes a lot of sense for the community to build something like Cedar Rapids did and really dig into the problem, talk to the experts, the people in the field and I think it really does make a lot of sense the way that they have approached it. One of the things I think that, I don’t know their system that much but it sounds to me like they’re missing one piece of the puzzle which is education for the tenants or the people who are being a nuisance.
And that you could create something where the first three times it’s free but after on the fourth occurrence then somebody gets a fine. Now to me the fine needs to go first and foremost to the tenant to the person who is making the call but what if they were to put together some type of training programs and it can be a couple of different ones, domestic violence obviously is always a big issue but there could also be people who have problems with drinking or drugs or whatever.
But what if, after the first occurrence or sometime during the first three occurrences, if they were to attend a local free training class on one of those topics they get one more freebie before they get a fine or something. Yeah, we can keep pushing the problem around but at some point, we have to kind of go to the root of the problem and see if we can help people that way as well.
I think what you explained at least having that communication with the landlords makes a lot of sense because then the landlords know what they’re dealing with and they know what problems they’re facing immediately and that helps.
Stephen: And in the one thing that they are doing in terms of education not on the tenant side but on the landlord side they do have training classes, annual training classes that the landlords can attend that teaches them everything on how to get your house up to code. How to perform an annual inspection, I mean it’s like landlording 101 type of class that they do. It’s a free training that they do.
As the program evolves, which it has certainly over the past 18 months since it’s been adopted, I think that you probably are gonna start seeing some tenant involved stuff. I think in the beginning, I don’t think anybody really understands how to address it or if they wanna take that type of responsibility where, like you said, they’re not pushing the people from one place to another anymore but they’re addressing the root of the problem.
Jeff: Well, the idea of providing training to the landlords is huge because you think about it…you’ve heard this said many times before. You know you have to go to training to get a driver’s license, but you don’t have to go to training to have a child. And so many people don’t have the instinct to be able to raise a child well without getting some additional help.
Same thing for landlords, if you have enough money to buy a property then you have the ability to rent that property but there’s no requirement. There’s no training. You don’t have to get a business license, I believe in most, if not all communities I’ve never heard of that. At least on a single unit type situation, you’re not running a business. You’re just renting out your property which is great.
We deserve to have that right to be able to do it and not have to pay for a business license and all of that but it almost would make sense to have some type of required training that landlords attend before they start renting out their property for the first time in a community. Just one or two hours to go over the basic things so that people understand what they’re going to face and how they’re impacting the community by being a good or a bad landlord.
And again, I am not advocating in any sense that landlords have to pay a business license or anything like that to rent out a single property but I do advocate some type of training before you rent out your first one. And what Cedar Rapids is doing in terms of providing annual training to landlords is great and I think that makes a lot of sense.
Stephen: Yeah and you know the other thing that that they’re doing well is they’ve got…part of the process for screening is not only are we doing the screening and providing information on evictions and a national criminal search and things like that, but the local police department is also performing their end of the screening as well. And so you’re getting to search a lot of things that screening companies just doesn’t have access to like active warrants and things that are going to make an immediate impact.
Jeff: Yes.
Stephen: And probably the biggest thing of all that I didn’t even mention was most of these municipalities they have only one way of tracking the success of the program and that’s how many fines have been issued, how many fines have been doled out. In Cedar Rapids, their ability to track is so much more deeper because now they can look at, “What is the hit ratio? Out of how many screenings that we did how many people had criminal records or eviction records and of those people who was rented to?”
And as the program progresses and as it gets more and more mature you can start to actually see those numbers start to drastically fall. So you could see what impact it would have on crime rate in the community, eviction rates and all these things that are trackable actual data that you can use instead of just say, “Well, it works great in concept,” or, “We’re just having something that take our word it works.”
This actually does work and they’ve got the data. They’ve got the numbers to provide proof on it too. So I think in that sense they were very smart, they had that in mind from the beginning. They knew that it needs to be and trackable. They need to justify it because of course there’s always gonna be people who have problems with it.
In that sense they’ve really cut off it at every angle and said, “Okay, you know what? We’re really gonna do this the right way,” and that’s exactly what they’ve built. It’s a good solid program that’s achieving good results and it’s, if nothing else, it’s a great tool for communication for landlords to know what’s happening in their property.
Jeff: That’s huge and so if anybody is a landlord and in a community, which I would assume most of our listeners are landlords or want to be landlords, get involved in the community process especially if you have the type of nuisance abatement laws that are really prohibitive to you operating a good business. Essentially that’s what we’re doing and we talk about that all the time, “Run it like a business. It is a business.” Be involved in your community and look at what Cedar Rapids is doing.
Obviously they’re willing to work with other municipalities and maybe you need to help your community, help your city government, local government reach out to Cedar Rapids and get some information about what they’ve done, how they’ve done it and how effective it’s been and maybe you can make a change in your community by reaching out and helping effect that change.
Stephen: Yeah and especially if you’re a new landlord or if you’re in an area that you’re not aware if they have an abatement ordinance or if you own property in a municipality other than the one that you live in and maybe are familiar with always double-check. Call the local police department, call the mayor’s office.
They’re gonna have the answers and let you know right away what the ordinances are if they exist or if they’re in development. And that’s kind of how we came across Cedar Rapids, was we were hearing about it in the news basically that this new police chief got elected and really wanted to make a difference and he was working on this and so you know there’s usually some coverage on it as it’s happening so I think that’s a great call to action for any landlord out there.
Check with your local municipality, see if there’s anything in effect, see if they’re working on anything or if they’re in the plans to start working on one because it’s becoming extremely popular and we’re seeing literally every single week new municipalities are adopting these ordinances, and they each built them based on their own standards and needs and there’s really no rubber stamp mold out there that says, “This is how we’re going to do it.” So you really don’t know what you’re gonna get and so if you wanna have any you know ability to affect the outcome of it you got to get involved early on.
Jeff: Really good point. Well, great Stephen. Thank you very much. I look forward to talking with you tomorrow evening on another topic.
Stephen: All right. Thanks, Jeff.