Residents pushing nuisance bill

The ordinance makes property owners liable for violations.
Sunday, October 5, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:30 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 14, 2008

A group of citizens is proposing an ordinance that would hold owners of rental property ultimately responsible for nuisance complaints filed against their tenants.

Under the proposed ordinance, property would be deemed a “chronic nuisance” after three reports of alleged criminal activity. A judge could close the property if the owners do not take action to eliminate the alleged nuisance. The proposed new law was drafted by John G. Clark, president of the North Central Columbia Neighborhood Association, with the help of citizens from various neighborhoods.

“We want property owners to work with police to solve these problems,” Clark said.

The police would be called in when a property receives two reports of alleged criminal activity within two months, or five reports in 180 days. At that point, the property owner would be notified and given an opportunity to fix the problem. If a third complaint is filed on the property, it would be deemed a “chronic nuisance,” and the property owner would have 30 days to submit a plan to police for eliminating the nuisance. Failure to comply with the plan could result in property being closed for up to one year.

The ordinance lists 14 categories of nuisance activities, all of which are criminal acts, ranging from drug dealing and prostitution to alcohol violations and excessive noise.

“Things like that happen in the same place repeatedly because there’s something going on at that place that needs to be addressed,” Clark said.

However, some property owners are criticizing the proposed ordinance because it makes them largely responsible for the actions of their tenants.

“There are not nuisance properties, there are nuisance tenants,” said Philip Warnken, coordinator for the East Campus Property Owners Association. “To put the entire responsibility on landlords is just ridiculous.”

Warnken, who owns several for-rent complexes in East Campus, said he can’t evict tenants unless they’ve been arrested and convicted of a crime. Warnken said that while landlords cannot punish their tenants based on allegations of nuisance activity, such allegations could be used to punish landlords.

“Landlords make serious attempts to stop these things, but problems do occur,” he said. “And it should not be our responsibility to do what the police (should be doing).”

Clark first brought the ordinance to the city two years ago. City staff reviewed the proposed ordinance and, according to Clark, “completely changed” it. One recommendation by city staff was that nuisance activity must be documented thoroughly. Clark’s current version, however, still calls for police involvement when the “possible existence” of a nuisance has been documented.

City Counselor Fred Boeckmann said he remembers Clark’s first draft relying too heavily on information in police reports, which often reflect just one person’s version of events.

“You can’t just assume that any statements in a report are true,” Boeckmann said. “There has to be some process for not just making that assumption.”

Clark has met recently with police, who have also accompanied supporters of the proposed ordinance on a safety walk of area neighborhoods. Marvin McCrary, a captain with the Columbia Police Department, said police have been working with Clark on different versions of the proposed ordinance for two years now.

“We’ve worked closely with neighborhoods so we can get this ordinance drafted into a law,” McCrary said.

The ordinance was designed after one that has been in place in Portland, Ore., since 1997. Portland Deputy City Attorney Linda Law said only roughly a dozen cases against property owners have faced civil action, and she said the ordinance has been a benefit to the community.

“It has done a lot of positive things for different neighborhoods,” she said.

But ordinance opponents, such as East Campus property owner Mark Stevenson, worry that some of the “nuisance activities” such as alcohol and noise violations, could be misused to harass college students. In 2000, MU became a dry campus and much of the drinking and partying moved into the surrounding neighborhoods, Stevenson said.

“If John Clark wants to get rid of gambling and prostitution and drugs, that’s fine,” Stevenson said. “But we’re talking about normal, average college kids having a party.”

Complaints by residents triggered a crackdown by police in near-campus neighborhoods. On Sept. 20, police reported 36 cases of nuisance activities in East Campus and southeast Columbia neighborhoods, including 24 cases of underage drinking and one case of indecent exposure.

Stevenson acknowledged that college students occasionally cause trouble, but, “it’s a police problem, not a landlord’s problem,” he said.

Clark is hoping City Council will see it as being a landlord’s problem as well. If not, he said, “then we’re just going to continue to suffer.”

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