Should there be a sabbatical exemption in Northfield’s rental code?

sabbatical

I’m not sure. See the Wed. StarTribune: Professors’ sabbaticals clash with rental laws.

Since the revision, professors on sabbatical leaves discovered, sometimes by calling city building official Jim Kessler, that they were no longer exempt from rental rules, including a ban on rentals of more than 20 percent of the homes on a block. For those on blocks maxed out with rentals, that meant leaving their homes vacant, or renting illegally during sabbaticals. Kessler said he suspects that some surreptitious renting is going on. The colleges grant sabbaticals of varying lengths every four to seven years for study or research.

Also see the Dec. 3 Nfld News: Rentals now outlawed may become legal

35 thoughts on “Should there be a sabbatical exemption in Northfield’s rental code?”

  1. How about an exemption that would allow any homeowner up to a one year rental license? This would really help with divorce, foreclosure, and other compelling circumstances.

    1. David- This sounds really reasonable and logical. It depends on what the council will do with it. It would certainly resolve a lot of issues associated with the housing market and people’s need for mobility in this economy.

  2. David,

    It makes no sense to me (and sounds downright illegal) to give professors special rental benefits unavailable to others.

    So I like your general idea of loosening up informal rentals, for everybody, under some special circumstances. Some details might need attention, though: Could the one-year special rental be extended? Could I get it more than once, perhaps with some waiting period? Stuff like that.

    1. Paul,

      The ordinance is clearly discriminatory, and, in my opinion, unconstitutional.

      That said, the easiest way to implement a rental exception would be to allow anyone a one year rental without regard to the reason, or who the tenants might be (so long as the residence is fit for owner occupancy). To inquire into the reason for the request or the proposed tenants raises too many issues of enforcement, and constitutionality.

      I think an open-ended exception actually aids the “sabbaticals”. It strikes me that job moves, divorces, and foreclosures are more compelling reasons to allow a rental than sabbatical.

      1. David,

        Did the old rental ordinance actually mention sabbaticals, or was it just a gentleperson’s agreement. Just wondering … either way, I’m agin’ it.

        Agreed, too, that government, even at the city level, shouldn’t be thrashing around in people’s work or divorce situations. So much said, perhaps there’s some moral hazard in allowing informal rentals too freely, for fear of unfair competition with commercial landlords who need to meet stronger (and more expensive) standards.

      2. Paul,

        I don’t think there was any agreement – written, oral, or implied.

        As I envision the exception, it would apply to all non-owner occupied housing. To avoid a continuous application, the exception would have to be limited to once every X years.

  3. David,

    I like it, too. Paul’s right that many implementation issues have to be settled, but I don’t think that would be too difficult.

  4. We were on sabbatical in 2006-2007 and rented our house to five unrelated Carleton students. We left them with very clear expectations. We informed all the neighbors first and left our contact information in case there was a problem, and we notified the City in case there was a problem with the payment of utility bills (the renters’ responsibility) or any other issue. When we returned, all of the other neighbors told us that our student renters were perfect neighbors. College students need to learn how to be good neighbors. I would rather help teach them that important life skill than keep them away through city ordinances. We live in a college town, people. Get used to it.

    1. Rob- You touched on two important aspects of this town. 1) It is a college town, and there are certain characteristics associated with college age men and women that we non-collegiates need to get used to. Extending a little understanding goes a long way with anyone. 2) The students do need to learn some responsibility for their own actions. If they decide to extend a noisy party onto the boulevard at 2:00 am, this will probably not gender good will with the neighbors who have to get up early to go to work, nor with those with toddlers awakened by the noise. I have had Olaf students living on both sides of my house, and I can only remember one incident that occured when I was out of town. Two of my neighbors effectively corrected that incident, and I don’t remeber of there being a problem after that. I do have a friend who has had some recuring negative experiences in his neighborhood. His solution (or, I should say, his wife’s solution) was a couple plates of brownies. You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

      1. The ordinance passed about a month after we returned.

        Around the corner from us, there’s a house owned by a local landlord (who seems to me to have escaped from a Dickens novel). He rents to students, who have been known to park their cars all across the front yard. The sidewalk is often not shoveled, and the lawn is often not mowed. Mowing and shoveling and not filling up the yard with cars are, or should be, expectations for all neighbors (and are, I believe, already covered by ordinances).

        Meanwhile, it seems to me that the colleges, as educational institutions, should also take some responsibility for seeing that their students who live in the community are good citizens and neighbors.

      2. Yes, David, I’m well aware of the change in ordinance and I’m not advocating people break the law. I’ve been advocating we change the law to avoid regulatory overkill and allow people who must rent their homes for short periods of time have the opportunity to do just what Rob did.

      3. And yes, Rob, there are a variety of ordinances to cover the behavior your other neighbors have displayed (snow removal – sec. 70-2; nuisance Ch 46 + rental code see 14-80 for the definition; blight 22-56 et. seq. + rental code 14-98; parking is regulated via the land development regulations plus the rental code + seasonal off-street parking regs).

        The question is: what’s the most effective and efficient way to control this undesirable behavior?

        I’d suggest it’s multiple strategies – part ordinance (and enforcement), part working with colleges and landlords, part colleges working with students, part good neighborliness.

      4. Rob,

        I like your suggestion that the colleges (and parents) take some responsibility for students who live off-campus. If parents or deans would encourage neighbors to call them at 2 a.m., I guarantee that the problem of excess partying wouldn’t last long.

        Right now, we are punishing the landlord when the tenants don’t behave.

      5. David – “must” was merely an infelicitous choice of words on my part, not an attempt to draft a new ordinance. Curt, you are right. Sabbaticals are short, fixed times, but renting one’s home for other reasons such as while trying to sell don’t have such tidy end dates. The last Council discussion centered around setting a period (say, a year) and then allowing some number of renewals of that period to give some flexibility.

  5. Betsey and David, why place a time limit on how long people can rent their houses? The sabbatical scenario works with a time limit, but people not on sabbaticals have no way to predict that their homes will be salable in 6 months, 1 year or 5 years. Houses aren’t selling any better now than they did a year ago, and there’s no reason to expect the market to improve.

    Why can’t existing laws–ie disorderly conduct, underage drinking, etc.–be enforced? Is the NFPD so inept or are the Olaf/Carleton students so bad assed that a little policing couldn’t change some behaviors?

    1. Curt,

      I’m in favor of repealing the rental requirements. However, that appears unlikely. In the interm, perhaps we could create some reasonable exceptions.

      The sabbatical exception is getting the most press. But, the foreclosure, divorce, and selling situations seem to be much more compelling to me. I would favor a blanket exception for any house listed on the market with the rental to expire upon the sale.

      I have no clue why the existing ordinances against bad behavior were considered insufficient at the time of the rental ordinance. It could be that much of the bad behavior wasn’t illegal, just inconsiderate.

      Further, I don’t know if this ordinance has had the desired effect. I seriously doubt that it has.

  6. A point that seems to be missing in these discussions. We are assuming that folks who rent cause problems.

    Many renters make wonderful neighbors and you’d never know the property they rent isn’t owned by them.

    By contrast, many homeowners have unkempt lawns, noisy parties, snow-filled sidewalks, and multiple cars crowding the curb.

    Seems to me the problem isn’t rentals per se, but weak noise and nuisance laws that are not enforced.

    1. Margaret, you have captured one concern of the Council which is: it’s not whether people rent or own their living space, but their behavior.

      The rental ordinance was adopted without carefully thinking through what we wanted to regulate and how much enforcement of existing regulations and how much new regulation was needed.

      As always, I encourage people to tell the Council (all emails and phone #s here: http://www.ci.northfield.mn.us/government/citycouncil) their concerns in addition to posting here on LG.

    2. Betsey,

      Has the existing ordinance had a measurable effect on curbing bad behavior? If not, perhaps “we” should scrap the whole thing, and start over.

  7. Excellent question David, and one that needs a good answer. I doubt very much that the ordinance has reduced bad behavior. In fact I’m willing to bet the ordinance has caused a drop in property values based on the number of empty houses that can’t sell and can’t be rented out.

    What’s going to happen when homeowners surrounded by empty houses start petitioning for a lower tax assessment? Won’t houses with folks IN them, renter or owners, keep our property values and therefore tax revenues, up?

  8. I think it’s been a year since Northfield’s rental code was a hot item. But the issue appears to be back in the news. Tues Strib editorial: Rental caps go too far, could backfire

    As of this week, property owners in some parts of West St. Paul will not have the option to rent out their homes. Under a new ordinance that went into effect Jan. 1, the city is limiting rentals to prevent an increase in the number of run-down, poorly maintained properties.

    But while the city’s objectives are understandable, municipal officials overreach in restricting property rights in this way. In an already difficult housing market, capping rentals could also produce unintended consequences such as more vacant buildings and even fewer home sales.

    Even as West St. Paul implements its rental cap, a court challenge to such policies is pending in another Minnesota town.

    Homeowners in Winona are challenging an ordinance there that caps rentals at 30 percent, arguing that it is an improper government infringement of their property rights. Winona is one of several college towns with rental restrictions, also including Mankato and Northfield.

  9. As Betsey said above:

    The rental ordinance was adopted without carefully thinking through what we wanted to regulate and how much enforcement of existing regulations and how much new regulation was needed.

    I’ve always thought that the ordinance as crafted was extremely ill-advised, and not at all an appropriate means to address the problems, real or perceived, that it was intended to correct. It has also created a ridiculous (and expensive) little bureaucracy within City Hall to “manage” the rentals governed by the ordinance. But that’s a whole ‘nother story.

    The fact is that the real estate market has changed fundamentally, not just drastically, since the rental code was adopted, and the rental ordinance needs to be reexamined for its impact on citizens and with at least a cursory cost-benefit analysis to the city.

    (For those residents concerned about the impact of nearby rental housing on their property values: See if you like the impact of foreclosures better.)

    I’ll echo Betsey’s encouragement to contact the City Council and ask that they reconsider the rental ordinance. In addition to the other situations that have been mentioned, I would venture to guess that many on the Council have not heard from those people who’ve essentially been forced into foreclosure because they have been transferred, gotten divorced, etc. and have not been unable to rent out their houses while in transition. If you are one of those, or know someone who is, please urge them to call their ward representative, the two at-large Councillors, and the Mayor.

  10. Thanks for starting this thread up again, Tracy. My perspective on the rental ordinance has deepened and changed significantly in the past six months, as I’ve been renting off-campus myself. There are shocking problems with renters to college students, with the responsibility for those problems pretty evenly split between landlord and tenant. A few that come to mind:

    Landlords inserting illegal or unenforceable provisions
    I am renting from a landlord referred to above by Rob. His “standard lease” contained shocking provisions, about his right to enter at any time without notice, broad powers to evict without cause, and unreasonable and unenforceable fines. He actually agreed to remove all of these provisions when we asked, but the majority of college tenants don’t know to ask. I’ve talked to others renting from other landlords, and they too insert illegal language, granting them rights state law doesn’t allow. This isn’t an issue the City rental ordinance can necessary address, but the high ratio of first-time and vulnerable renters should be borne in mind.

    Overcrowding
    I know of many properties having only five (or fewer) people on the lease, and then “subletting” available room to others, trying to circumvent the City’s “5 unrelated” rule. I think that rule is kind of arbitrary, so I don’t really care, but it is a common violation.

    Maintenance of sidewalk and boulevard
    Living on St. Olaf Ave, my biggest irritation with my fellow renters is the unshoveled walks — inconvenient at best, dangerous at worst. This is the landlord’s responsibility — though I personally have found myself quite capable of wielding a shovel when necessary. Betsey is right that the existing ordinance covers this, but the City needs to lay down the law on landlords (and homestead-dwellers, too, for that matter).

    Parking
    One of the more obtuse provisions of the current rental code was the off-street parking requirement. To keep the cars off the street, I often see cars blocking the sidewalk (or, more creatively, parallel-parked in the driveway apron). One property I looked at for this year had nearly the entire back yard paved over in black asphalt to fulfill the parking requirement. The off-street parking requirement should be eliminated, and the City should reconsider its Winter Parking Ban: with an abundance of wide, low-traffic streets, it is absurd to prevent people from using that space for five months of the year.

    Small-scale versus large-scale renting
    This is what Tracy was mainly getting at. The unsightly, unpleasant “rentals” people imagine do not come from a single homeowner renting out their house because they had to move, or they cannot afford it themselves. It comes from landlords with many properties, who haven’t invested the resources in keeping them all up. Why not allow each landlord to have one “free” property (not bound by the block restriction), while keeping the reigns tighter on larger-scale landlords?

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