Renters are entitled to basic amenities such as heat, water and a home that doesn’t leak. Unfortunately, that’s apparently not the case with all rental property in Bismarck.
The Bismarck City Commission heard last week how some of the city’s most vulnerable residents live in inadequate housing. The instances described to the commissioners shouldn’t be occurring.
Commissioner Nancy Guy, who has proposed an ordinance to deal with the situation, talked about mobile homes with holes in the floor that allowed animals to get inside.
Sister Kathleen Atkinson, with Ministry on the Margins, told of a tenant who came to the food pantry for blankets because the rental property was cold and the landlord’s response was to get more blankets. Another renter stopped for water because her home lacked suitable water for her and her mother, who has cancer.
Part of the problem is that many tenants are afraid to complain and, if they do, don’t know what to do if the landlord brushes them off. They may have had problems finding an affordable home and fear they’ll lose the home if they complain too much.
The Tribune Editorial Board believes such situations are unacceptable. We realize some inexpensive rental homes are basic, but they need the essentials like heat, water and insulation. Under the ordinance being considered the process would be complaint based. The complaints would have to be in writing and filed in person, by mail or electronically. The complaints would go to city building official Brady Blaskowski, and if considered valid, he would work with the landlord to correct any problems. If the landlord fails to cooperate, the case would go to the city attorney for possible further action.
This process will require action by the tenant and in some cases they will need help from social workers or other agencies. At present it’s more complicated for a tenant to get results. Any issue is considered a civil matter so if it’s not addressed within three days of written notice to the landlord, the renter can pay for repairs and deduct the cost from their rent or take their landlord to small claims court, or end the lease without penalty. This is difficult for people struggling to complete daily tasks, so a more simplified process makes sense.
Guy and city staff met with the Bismarck-Mandan Apartment Association on two occasions to discuss the proposed ordinance. The association is concerned the city might be moving to regular inspections, which they oppose. However, the Tribune doesn’t believe that’s the intention of the city. We agree with Guy’s assessment that most landlords do a good job.
"I think that probably 90-plus percent of our property owners here in Bismarck provide a good value to their renters. But I think there's a small percentage that do not. So I wanted to make sure the tenants had a tool for addressing the issue," Guy said.
The commission didn’t take action on the proposed ordinance and will revisit the issue at a later meeting. The Tribune thinks the commission and the Bismarck-Mandan Apartment Association should be able to agree on an ordinance that provides tenants with help when complaints go unheeded. There will be some tenants with unreasonable expectations, but city officials should be able to weed them out. We shouldn’t allow anyone to live in unhealthy conditions and this is a step in the right direction.