Dec. 19 2018 08:45 AM

City Council votes to table ordinance on rental restrictions

WEDNESDAY, DEC. 19 — How can East Lansing be more accommodating to student housing? Councilman Aaron Stephens hopes a yet-to-be-formed “task force” will help provide some of the answers.


Earlier this month, Stephens proposed a draft ordinance that would’ve prohibited landlords from charging tenants for several months worth of rent upfront before allowing students to move into their apartments. But the change could have run afoul from existing state laws, Stephens said. And the proposal has since been benched.


But that doesn’t mean efforts to reform a multitude of outstanding “issues” between local landlords and tenants will remain on the back burner. Stephens suggested painting with a broader brush might produce some better results, as the community looks to tackle several aspects of student housing within downtown East Lansing.


“We evaluate our policies constantly, but, in hearing all these different issues, I thought it would be a good time to take a more holistic approach to student living concerns,” Stephens added. “There’s probably no way that we can address everything, but we can look at student living, in general, and see where East Lansing can improve.”


Ordinance 1444 — before it was unanimously tabled by the City Council — would’ve amended a portion of the city’s property maintenance code to give tenants the option of paying their rent in monthly installments, rather than require them to dole out upfront checks for an entire semester. It’s an issue Stephens has eyed for months.


“To some, it can be a hindrance to ever getting housing here in East Lansing,” Stephens said. “It’s prohibitive.”


But “legal concerns” ultimately killed the fledgling ordinance before it could pass, Stephens said. Some local residents also pushed back against the proposal directly. Attorney Andrew Sass, for instance, spoke during public comment about how the measure was both unnecessary and likely to clash with state rental laws.


In fact, the state legislature’s long-standing “Practical Guide for Tenants and Landlords” provides an expressed recognition that rent payments can be required by “whatever period is established in the lease.” It also specifically notes those terms can include a weekly, monthly, semiannual or annual rent schedule for tenants.


Instead of honing in on one particular rental issue, Stephens now wants to take time to explore other concerns, including various city-mandated rental fees, property restrictions, leasing practices, cleaning fees, snow removal and lawn maintenance charges and parking issues. The gamut is essentially limitless, Stephens emphasized.


“It’s about any number of issues that students can face to live in East Lansing,” Stephens said. “The best way to create policy is by getting educated around the issues. We can work together and create something positive. The idea is to take these concerns and use them as a tool to start a bigger conversation.”


That conversation is also likely to be guided by an unnamed team of officials from both East Lansing and Michigan State University alongside students, landlords and other interested residents in the community. Stephens also said he plans to knock on doors around the city to delve further into potential housing problems.


Mayor Mark Meadows said existing ordinances already help to control excessive noise and party-related litter in the city but additional problems with student housing — if they even exist — pale in comparison to college life in the ‘90s. He emphasized that the city will not provide any resources to help with Stephens’ task force plans.


“That’s strictly an Aaron thing,” Meadows said. “It’s for him to educate himself. If he decides to bring this ordinance back or pursue a different ordinance, it’ll be the result of him getting educated on these issues. I know he has since met with landlords on this topic and they’d really prefer not to have any added regulations at all.”


Stephens said Ordinance 1444 could resurface again in the future, but it’ll likely be amended to address other outstanding “problems” regarding rental properties in the city. He also encouraged those interested in addressing the topic or serving on the task force to email him directly at astephens@cityofeastlansing.org.


“If nothing comes out of it, at least I tried to address a fairly substantial issue within this city,” Stephens added.


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