Bemidji City Council holds public hearing on rental ordinance, tables topic for more discussion

BEMIDJI — In a public hearing on Monday, several community members spoke up about a proposed rental ordinance, asking that the Bemidji City Council reexamine tenant protections and how it defines occupancy limits.

Last updated in 2011, the city’s rental ordinance has been under revision for months by a special committee, adjusting the code’s licensing and inspection processes and looking at how occupancy is defined.

The current rental ordinance allows for a family or up to four unrelated adults to live in a rental unit, and while the new proposal clarifies and broadens the definition of family it hasn’t changed the policy on unrelated individuals.

Some of the community members who attended the public hearing advocated for this to be changed, and for occupancy to be guided by code and space requirements instead of what they viewed as an arbitrary number.

“These codes include occupancy limits for housing based on the number and square footage of bedrooms,” said Andrew Erholtz, owner of Vision Property Management. “I request the rental ordinance be changed to permit the occupancy of units be equal to that permitted by code.”

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Erholtz explained his belief that making this change would also increase the housing supply in Bemidji, something that is currently very limited.

“When supply meets demand, rents get higher and landlords are more selective. This makes it harder for everyone to find the housing that they want. One way we could address this imbalance is to address supply,” Erholtz explained. “This would increase supply by freeing up additional units.”

Some council members worried that defining occupancy simply by code would have unintended consequences, namely that it might make it difficult for larger families to rent if their number exceeds the limit.

“While I don’t disagree, I also have concerns that it may have the opposite effect for families. I don’t want there to be a converse effect,” said Ward 4 Councilor Emelie Rivera, who also sat on the committee for the rental ordinance.

Ward 1 Councilor Audrey Thayer suggested that instead of defining occupancy by code, it might be possible to simply increase the number of unrelated adults who can rent a unit from four to five.

This however, brought up concerns of parking, especially if this change were to apply to the rental units that were grandfathered in and already don’t meet the city’s on-site parking requirements.

“(The limit of four) was more for parking than anything else,” shared Ward 3 Councilor Ron Johnson.

Tenant protections

Another topic raised during the public hearing was the issue of tenant protections, something which Beltrami County Commissioner Reed Olson spoke on in his comments.

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Olson shared concerns he had heard from renters who feared standing up for their rights in case of retaliation from their landlords.

“I find it appalling that some landlords in Bemidji believe that they can repeatedly step on the rights of their tenants,” Olson said. “It is your responsibility (as the city council) that our residents, your constituents, are treated with respect and their rights are protected.”

While Olson acknowledged that Bemidji has plenty of good landlords, he stressed that protections for tenant rights were key to protecting renters from those that are less ethical.

In a tight housing market like Bemidji, Olson explained that it is especially important to provide protections for tenants since it's much harder for renters to find alternative housing.

“Bad landlords will often say something like ‘Hey, if they don’t like it, they don’t have to rent from me,’” Olson said. “That’s simply not true when there isn’t enough housing to go around for everybody. We do have to rent from the landlords.”

Olson asked that the council take his comments into consideration and look at providing more tenant protections in the ordinance alongside consequences for landlords who fail to provide safe and adequate housing.

“I would say that (the council) has the obligation to show your citizens you care more about their safety and their dignity than you care about the profitability of landlords,” Olson stated. “The city should say in a clear voice that if you won’t respect our citizens, then you will not be a landlord here.”

Following the public hearing, the council discussed the comments it had heard from community members, and whether any changes should be made to the ordinance prior to its second reading.

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“It was a great open hearing tonight. It really broadens your thought process and what’s important for our city,” Thayer shared. “This is the opportunity (to make changes).”

However, due to the complexity of the document, any changes would need to be carefully worded to avoid unintended effects, as was discussed around the possibility of increasing unrelated occupancy from four to five.

“Trying to change (the ordinance) is almost impossible because one piece affects the others,” Rivera explained.

Ultimately the council decided to table the second reading of the ordinance to its meeting on Dec. 19, to allow for further discussion and a detailed look at what changes can be made.

Other business

Also during the session, the city council approved a 2023 budget for the Sanford Center, in the amount of $308,000. ASM Global, the center’s new management company, is projecting an operating loss for 2023 of $190,314.

This is close to the estimated loss of $190,000 ASM promised for its first year, but because of an unexpected increase in insurance costs, the total net loss for 2023 is estimated at around $265,000.

“Even at $265,000, it’s almost half of what we paid for the last several years,” Johnson shared. “I think we’re on the right track and I’m really excited.”

The council also approved an ad hoc transition committee for the Greater Bemidji Joint Planning Board that will guide the organization's dissolution following Northern Township’s exit from the group.


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