Lansing renters at risk


A clean, safe place to live is the single most important material need for human beings, following close behind the biological imperatives of air, water and food. Yet for many Lansing residents, this basic necessity of life is hard to find and even harder to afford. People of limited financial means have limited housing options, usually as renters, and too often have to deal with one of the city’s numerous unscrupulous landlords.

In the past 18 months, fires have erupted at three different rental units in Lansing causing two deaths, including a 23-month-old toddler last June, who lived in an unlicensed, uninspected rental with no smoke detectors. Fires and fatalities are the most visible and tragic examples of the consequences of substandard housing and predatory property owners, but scores of Lansing tenants are forced to deal every day with myriad lesser indignities, from vermin and black mold to broken appliances and flooded basements.

The state of Lansing’s rental housing stock and plethora of vacant, red-tagged properties has once again hit the radar of city officials, prompted in part by an enterprising investigation by City Council newcomer Ryan Kost, who earlier this year launched a door-to-door investigation of red-tagged houses on the city’s east side. Of the 180 First Ward properties visited by Kost, more than one-quarter of them appeared to be occupied, in violation of the city statute that only allows people to enter an unsafe structure to work on fixing it.

An unfortunate side effect of Kost’s field work, and enforcement of Lansing’s housing code in general, is that people end up being evicted from their unsafe homes, illustrating the double-edged sword of trying to keep people safe but taking actions that could make them homeless.

That’s exactly what played out last week at the Holmes Apartments in South Lansing. According to news reports, the 29-unit building was in such a sorry state of repair that the entire building was shuttered and every resident evicted. It isn’t the first time a multi-unit apartment building in Lansing has been evacuated and padlocked due to unsafe living conditions. If the city’s current code enforcement practices continue, it won’t be the last.

The controversy over unsafe housing took an unexpected turn last month when Scott Sanford, the city’s long-time and beleaguered code compliance manager, suddenly retired from his job. On his way out the door, Sanford blamed city politics for the sorry state of Lansing’s rental and vacant housing stock. He’s not wrong, but there’s plenty of blame to go around. Successive mayoral administrations and city councils dating back to the Hollister era have failed to crack the code of effective housing enforcement. Despite her confession at Monday night’s special Committee of the Whole meeting that “all of us are culpable,” Council President Carol Wood has been busy spitting nails and pointing fingers. Having served on the Council for nearly 24 years, we think Wood can take more responsibility than most for failing to solve Lansing’s code enforcement conundrum during her lengthy tenure on City Council. 

Sanford also pointed out that problem properties are but a small fraction of Lansing’s housing stock. He’s not wrong about that, either. But to us, it begs the question: Why is it such a struggle to manage the city’s portfolio of red-tagged properties to ensure that people aren’t living in them, that timely repairs are being made, and that the city’s monthly monitoring fee is being properly assessed and collected?

We appreciate the forthright admission by Barb Kimmel, interim director of the city’s Department of Economic Development and Planning, that her department’s enforcement of the housing code leaves much to be desired. We support her call for an independent, external review of the code enforcement unit’s policies and procedures.

We also are encouraged by Mayor Andy Schor’s commitment to take action, belated though it is, and City Attorney Jim Smiertka’s recent moves to file suit against the Holmes Apartment owners and bring misdemeanor charges against landlords who allow people to occupy unsafe houses. We’re less impressed by City Council’s resurgent interest in the issue, but we remain hopeful that meaningful reforms will come out of its deliberative process.

City Pulse has reported for more than a decade on the state of the city’s rental and red-tagged housing stock and the intermittent efforts to do something about it. Yet here we are, wringing our hands once again over a perpetually thorny issue that appears to be virtually immune from effective government intervention. It is long past time for meaningful action.

So, what is the solution? We don’t have all the answers, but we think it’s always a good idea to review best practices in other places for guidance on how to tackle intractable problems. We’ve done that in this space, on this topic, on more than one occasion.

We’ll reiterate here: It’s time to create a system that truly holds bad landlords accountable. It’s time for an escalating scale of punishments for property violations that endanger the health and safety of tenants. The goal should be to create a strong financial disincentive for failing to maintain rental properties to appropriate standards or risk losing them to receivership. That’s how they roll in Ann Arbor. Lansing would do well to take a close look at their approach.


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