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Bismarck City Commission approves minimum habitability regulations for rental housing

Bismarck City Commission approves minimum habitability regulations for rental housing

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City officials have reinstated minimum habitability regulations for rental housing -- something Bismarck hadn't had for 15 years.

The city commission on Tuesday voted to approve standards including roofs, floors and walls must not be deteriorated; units must have a permanently installed heat source; and structures must be kept free from insect and rodent infestation, among other provisions.

The ordinance grants exceptions to rules "whenever there are practical difficulties," but they must be granted by a building official or an environmental health administrator and must "not lessen health, life and fire safety requirements."

City staff won't actively seek out violations.

"We do not anticipate the need for additional staffing and resources at this point," Community Development Director Ben Ehreth said. "It would be a complaint-based process, as is most of our enforcement."

The city has had a staff member "informally" tracking complaints from the rental housing community, according to Ehreth. His department has received about 20 complaints from rental housing tenants over the past two years, prompting officials to address the issue.

The ordinance grants a building official or environmental health administrator authority to enter buildings and inspect them after receiving a complaint. If a property owner refuses entry to inspectors, a building official is authorized to issue a search warrant.

The rules also require tenants to contact property owners before filing a complaint with the city to "try to remedy the situation between property owner and tenant prior to coming to the city," Ehreth said.

Bismarck had minimum habitability standards in its Uniform Building Code until 2004, when the regulations were apparently accidentally left out when the city transitioned to the International Building Code, according to Ehreth.

"We tried to research if there was any intention behind it and could not find any, so it is our best estimate that they were just inadvertently not carried over," he said.

In addition, the city's Infill and Redevelopment Plan, a document adopted by city commissioners in 2017 addressing Bismarck's growth and development, identified that 30% of rental housing units in Bismarck were built prior to 1970. 

"Housing that is not adequately maintained not only creates health and safety issues for the renters of the building, which they may or may not be aware of, it also exerts a negative effect on the surrounding neighborhood," reads the document developed by city staff.

The city's community development and public health department with the help of City Attorney Jannelle Combs developed drafts of the minimum habitability ordinance. City staff and Commissioner Nancy Guy last month met with stakeholders including the Bismarck-Mandan Apartments Association and manufactured home management companies, who provided further input.

State law sets minimum housing standards and entitles some tenants to remedies. 

"However, in looking at state century code, there's a bit of a financial burden or commitment that would be required from renters of the property," Ehreth said, referring to how the state statute generally requires tenants to hire an attorney to address property owners not meeting minimum standards. "So there may not be financial means, in other words, by some of the tenants impacted to pursue some of the remedies offered."

During Tuesday's commission meeting, two tenants spoke about their experiences living in rental units they say would not be compliant with the proposed standards. When Guy asked who in the audience was in support of the proposal, about 10 people raised their hands.

Kathy Temchak with the Dakota Center for Independent Living, which helps people with disabilities find homes, said "it's been really tough."

"I've gone in with some of my consumers to some apartments, they've been in homes and apartment buildings, and honestly, there are some I wouldn't even go in. I just turned around and left," she said. "The doors didn't close, there was mold, there was cobwebs. I mean, it was not good. And they wanted $650" for monthly rent.

Tami Morey said she worries the regulations will cause property management companies to raise rent.

"The reason we are forced to live in these conditions are because it's the only place we can afford, and if you force compliance, my fear is that those costs are going to be forced onto the renters, and that's going to put me out of a place to live," she said. 

Reach Andy Tsubasa Field at 701-250-8264 or andy.field@bismarcktribune.com.

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