Symbiotic Slums: Duluth tries new ways to fix nuisance propertiesIt was a familiar sight for Sarah Benning, the city’s solid waste compliance officer, when she turned the corner recently to an alley behind Sixth Avenue East in Duluth’s East Hillside neighborhood, an area she calls “one of the worst in the city” for violations of city code.
It was a familiar sight for Sarah Benning, the city’s solid waste compliance officer, when she turned the corner recently to an alley behind Sixth Avenue East in Duluth’s East Hillside neighborhood, an area she calls “one of the worst in the city” for violations of city code.
There she saw abandoned vehicles, garages overflowing with trash, couches and appliances left abandoned next to the road, and backyards filled with so much junk, the ground couldn’t be seen.
All are city code violations. She has written citations against many of the property owners, and she did again after her inspection.
In the past, Benning has feared the cleanup would be only temporary. Now, she said, the city has better enforcement tools to make a permanent dent in neighborhood blight.
Problem properties causing that blight are nearly everywhere in the city. About 80 percent come from private homeowners; the rest come from rentals, Benning said. Factors in the ongoing blight, Benning and other experts say, are an easily exploitable infraction system, a lack of cooperation between property owners and police, and an overworked and understaffed city inspection team.
Benning, for example, is the only person in the city responsible for responding to complaints of solid waste outside properties. But she averages 12 to 15 complaints a day, causing most of her time to be spent reacting.
“My big dream when I started was that I’ll respond to the complaints, get those cleaned up and then go back to the ones no one complains about,” she said. “But there are just so many complaints.”
Fortunately, she said, about 85 percent to 90 percent of solid waste violators comply when given a warning. The rest are given misdemeanor criminal citations.
In the past, some property owners ignored the citations, and the court issued essentially unenforced warrants for their arrest, Benning said. Even if a person goes to court and is issued a fine, Benning said, “some don’t pay it.”
The city hopes its new system will work better.
Earlier this year, Duluth moved to an administrative fine system, where fines accumulate to more than $5,000 and can be assessed to a violator’s property taxes. Instead of collecting only 15 percent of the fine under a criminal citation, the city will collect 100 percent.
That money will allow the city to start other programs to enforce housing laws, such as hiring a contractor to clean up problem properties and assess the cost to violators.
“Sometimes we’re just fining and fining people and getting no results,” Benning said. “We would like to clean a property up for the neighborhood’s sake.”
The city plans to hire two more building inspectors and hopes the City Council will approve a change to the housing laws that will allow inspectors to examine an entire property following a complaint, rather than just a specific problem.
Duluth police are also getting more proactive in dealing with nuisance properties, at least when it comes to focusing on renters and landlords. This year the city became one of many in the country to implement the “Crime-free Multi-housing Program,” which West Duluth community police Officer Shawn McGovern said is designed to “help landlords be more responsible for their properties.”
“The problem we’ve had is there have been a lot of absentee landlords where they’re not taking a lot of responsibility for their properties,” McGovern said.
Though landlords aren’t required to enter the program, if one of their tenants is the subject of nuisance complaints for fights, loud noise or drug sales, the landlords are given a “strike.” If landlords get three strikes, they lose the ability to rent out the unit, and the tenant is evicted from the apartment.
“This holds the landlord to be responsible for the properties,” McGovern said, “and forces them to work with tenants to resolve issues.”
Police also provide training to landlords to teach them about the Crime-free program, including how to write proper leases and how to do background checks on tenants.
“When you buy a property, nobody hands you an owners’ manual and says: ‘This is how you do it,’ ” McGovern said. “We teach them how to become good property managers.”
Thus far, he said the program has been successful. The property manager of the Seaway Hotel took part in the program, and after problem tenants were evicted, McGovern said, the property saw a 60 percent drop in police calls from January to the beginning of May this year compared to last.
“When you have a more stable property, it increases the neighborhood cohesiveness and makes the neighbors happier,” McGovern said.