City hopes to work with landlords

Published 7:10 pm Friday, November 16, 2018

Amidst discussion on the Tall Pines Apartments during the LaGrange City Council work session on Tuesday, council conversation briefly turned to what the city can do to better work with other landlords within the city.

The city has little control over how rental properties are managed outside of health and safety violations. However, some council members wondered if local landlords would be willing to work with the City of LaGrange to improve the appearance of properties — with the city making right-of-way improvements where needed while owners address areas on the property itself — and coordinate with the city to better manage crime in areas with high concentrations of rental property.

“We can have all the town hall meetings and community programs that we want, but poor people in the city basically move around like gypsies. The people who actually own these properties are never at the table when it comes to a solution about crime,” Councilman Nathan Gaskin said.

Mayor Jim Thornton suggested that city staff arrange a meeting with local landlords to determine how to best partner to improve quality of life within the city. It was noted that improvements to property appearance and better communication on crime could benefit both the city and property owners.

“Let’s see if the staff could identify the principal rental property owners,” Thornton said.  “I think there are a handful, a dozen or so, and maybe we can invite them to a meeting to raise some of these concerns. Maybe staff can do that, and [we’ll] see if there are things the city could be doing to help them get a handle on [crime in rental properties] and at the same time, what they can do to help us in terms of lines of communication.”

Thornton said that he worried that the very request to meet could raise alarm bells for some landlords, however.

“They are going to feel threatened by that call and invitation, but I think perhaps if we do it in the context of, ‘We are looking for ways to partner. We are looking for ways to improve the community,’ it will not be perceived as threatening.” Thornton said.

The City of LaGrange is also in the process of creating the initial plan for Pay As You Save, a program that will aim to help residents make energy saving repairs to the place where they live. During discussion on the program earlier this year, it quickly became evident that the program will require strong partnerships with local landlords, due to the high number of LaGrange residents who live in rental properties.

“One way to open that door is if we move forward with the PAYS program, which is the energy efficiency initiative, 60 percent of our housing stock is rental, so when we get into this program, we are going to be dealing with a lot of landlords,” City Manager Meg Kelsey said.

“They are going to have to sign off on this program to improve their housing stock, so how do we move throughout that? How do we get them at the table? We can talk about unsafe housing conditions, crime, all of those variables at the door. We can say, ‘Hey. We are going to start this program, but can you all also help us by vetting your tenants?’”

At the same time, Gaskin urged city staff to be alert to housing violations that could harm renters.

“The rental properties are being protected by the state legislature,” Gaskin said. “I understand that, but it is incumbent upon us to make sure that we hold them to the letter of the law. If they are in violation, they need to be cited. A fine needs to be paid. If not paid, they need to be in front of a judge.”

The city council did not move to take any immediate action on the matter beyond the instruction that staff begin to reach out to local landlords.

The LaGrange City Council will meet on Nov. 27 at 5:30 p.m. at 208 Ridley Ave.