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A curious dog watches through the screen door at the rental unit at 327 Elizabeth Street, which opens onto an alley. Nathan Bowe / Forum News Service

Minn. city's renter situation is a new crackdown on an old policy

DETROIT LAKES, Minn.—It was a decision heard around the region.

The controversy that erupted from the Detroit Lakes City Council's decision to revoke a rental registration, which essentially will force a disabled veteran from his home, stems from the city putting a renewed focus on rental units getting into compliance with zoning and coding laws.

The city this spring hired its first code compliance officer, Priscilla Gurath, who is tasked with enforcement of the city's rental registration ordinance, nuisance property ordinance, and stormwater management ordinance. She will checks on conditional use permits and zoning variances to make sure city-required conditions are followed by property owners.

The city council on Tuesday voted to deny an appeal from property owner Laurel Carlson, who lives on the 1300 block of Elizabeth Street, and to revoke her rental permit for a second dwelling (attached to a garage) that she said has been used as a rental since 1945.

The veteran, Brian Fraser, who is recovering from transplant surgery, told the council he likes his home, can have his little dog there, and doesn't want to move. Carlson said she depends on the rental unit for income.

The council's action spurred a firestorm of media coverage and social media comments across the region. A petition drive has been started on Facebook, and a GoFundMe campaign was launched by Jordan Cossette, who said "a terrible injustice, handed down by the majority of city council members, was passed." Cossette says, "I just cannot believe that our city council has become so heartless" and that they're "very disappointed with our city's decision." By Friday morning, July 14, $445 had already been raised since the campaign started.

But this inspection on Elizabeth Street wasn't part of the new proactive inspection policy, in which the city will look at all rentals in the city over three years, said City Administrator Kelcey Klemm. This particular inspection was complaint-based.

The rental inspection at Carlson's property came after a complaint by neighbor Beth Olness, who considers the rental unit an eyesore and who took to social media Thursday to list different code violations she's noticed.

"No staff member, no council member, likes to do a rental registration revocation, regardless of the issues," said Klemm. "But at the end of the day, we have a health and safety code we have to follow and we have to enforce," he said.

There is still a chance that the council will "grandfather-in" Carlson's property and allow her to continue renting out the detached unit.

"In this case, if the owner of the property can demonstrate to the council's satisfaction that the dwelling had been used as a rental prior to 1968 (when the rental zoning ordinance was enacted) the council would probably reconsider," said Detroit Lakes Mayor Matt Brenk. "I'm not sure how she'd be able to do that—1968 was a long time ago, and the unit would still have to be brought up to code."

The zoning is really the main issue at the site. Detached rental units are not allowed on residential property in the city.

The property owner, Carlson, also failed to get a building permit before having a new furnace installed in the rental unit, along with a new roof, new kitchen range, kitchen flooring, a shower and toilet. She says she wasn't aware a building permit was needed for those smaller, non-construction-related improvements.

The city's rental inspector did find code problems at the unit — it needs more smoke detectors and newer electrical outlets — but nothing that couldn't be easily fixed. The biggest job would be painting the exterior and adding a larger egress window in the bedroom. Fraser told the council he is an experienced carpenter and can do a lot of the work himself.

Businesses in the Detroit Lakes and Fargo-Moorhead area have offered to provide paint and free electrical help. Others have called the Detroit Lakes newspaper offering a place for Fraser to live. Klemm said city administration has reached out to the city Housing and Redevelopment Authority to find a new home for the Fraser.

"We should be talking about how we get this veteran into some safe, affordable energy-efficient housing," Klemm said.

The city hired its first code compliance official to better enforce rules that have always been on the books, but haphazardly enforced.

"It goes back to planning and zoning enforcement, nuisance enforcement and rental enforcement," Klemm said. "The rental registration ordinance has been on the books for years, but are we actually inspecting them for the health and safety of tenants and people moving to Detroit Lakes. It was complaint-based before."

A big part of the code compliance officer's duties will be to make sure that stormwater runoff is properly managed at construction sites, and the the city's 100-plus stormwater retention ponds are properly maintained and don't fill up with silt and debris.

But the city may want to prepare for more tears and heartache—Gurath's main focus right now is on nuisance housing complaints and rental reviews.