Sunday, December 6, 2009

LOCAL LANDLORDS: Bite crime at fiery, standing room only event

COLUMBIA, 12/6/09 (Beat Bytes) --  He was renting to drug dealers who literally scared away some of my best renters, and I spoke about it, but wouldn't identify him.  

So he identified himself.  "I'm Bob Gerau and I'm the guy he's talking about renting to drug dealers," the local fireworks baron and longtime landlord barked.  "And my houses are 10 times as nice as his." 

So went the first round of fiery rhetoric, fabulous advice, and some of the best free-form discussing I've experienced, as a standing room only crowd of about 80 people -- roughly half of them local and well-known landlords -- attended Columbia's first Landlords Take a Bite Out of Crime Summit last Thursday evening in a Youzeum meeting room made for twenty-five people. 

Moderated by Columbia Business Times editor in chief David Reed, the forum was a healthy mix of audience participation, hard-hitting questions, robust confrontations, and expert advice.  On the agenda:

Public Housing:  Myth vs. Reality
Effective screening/reporting
Balancing the City Hall/Local Landlord equation
Neighborhood Dynamics:  Crime, Housing, and the Broken Windows Theory
Landlords, Crime Prevention, and What You Can Do 

City of Columbia neighborhood response team coordinator Bill Cantin kicked off a discussion of the Broken Windows Theory:  Crime follows broken windows and deteriorating property.  Columbia police officer and Crime Free Housing director Tim Thomason reminded that tenant screening should be thorough, checking for city, county, state, and federal offenses. 

Thomason also surprised some attendees by speaking about how landlords can be held liable and sued for the actions of criminal tenants -- a national trend that "I hope, for your all's sake, doesn't end up in Columbia," he said. 

Landlord/tenant law attorney Steve Scott explained the ins and outs of evicting tenants caught committing crimes, and how to write iron-clad leases that keep crooks off the property.

Landlords around the room spoke about slow police and city hall responses to criminal problems.  Sheriff's deputies and police officers don't respond nearly fast enough, participants said, and building inspectors won't take complaints from landlords about tenants damaging property, but will take complaints from tenants about landlords with damaged property.

Gerau, who earlier bragged about the condition of his properties, spoke loudly about getting "too damned many letters" from city inspectors and the Columbia police.  "What am I supposed to do every time there's an old tire or a couch or some trash on the property?" Gerau complained.  Some landlords supported his call for "duplicate letters" also warning tenants. 

But others disagreed.  "Aren't we sending you those letters because we're having a problem getting you to comply?" 2nd Ward councilman Jason Thornhill asked.  "If we send a letter to your tenant, how motivated are you going to be to check out the mess?" 

"It's our responsibility to make sure we don't have trash on our property," agreed landlord Tim Sullivan.  "I inspect my places at least twice a week, so I don't get all those letters." 

Tackling some misleading stereotypes about Section 8 housing vouchers, Columbia Housing Authority (CHA) director Phil Steinhaus addressed his organization's zero crime tolerance policy.  For instance, Federal law "strictly prohibits sex offenders" in Federally-subsidized housing.  And of 1,400 Section 8 voucher recipients, CHA pulled vouchers from a mere 30, or about two percent, "for violent or drug-related crimes," Steinhaus said.  The rest were clean. 

An informal survey of Section 8 properties bears out Steinhaus' claim.  Of 82 street addresses typed into the Columbia Daily Tribune archives, only 10% showed arrests within the past three years, and of those, only 5%, or four properties, showed arrests for violent or drug related offenses.  "We act immediately if we get any complaints about criminal activity," Steinhaus explained. 

Other evening fireworks included loud words and finger-pointing between landlord Paul Prevo and attendees who claimed Prevo was ignoring a flagrant criminal element on his property.  They passed around a large photograph as proof. 

"He called me a racist when I warned him about it," one participant said about Prevo.   "He also said Officer Tim Thomason was a racist."   

"I didn't call you a racist," Prevo countered.  "I said you were saying some racially-charged things."

Other attendees included MU community specialist Pat Fowler; 1st ward councilman and group organizer Paul Sturtz;  4th Ward councilman and mayoral candidate Jerry Wade; mayoral candidate Sid Sullivan and his wife Joan; Parkade Mall manager Ben Gakinya; city volunteer coordinator Leigh Britt; rental managers Auben Galloway from Callahan and Galloway; Shaye McDaniels from Holiday House Apartments; Trent Rosenthal from The Colony Apartments; realtors David Townsend, Ron DeLaitte, and Dave Miller; Columbia Board of Realtors president Carol Van Gorp; NCCNA board member John Clark; and landlords Mark Stevenson, Tim Burnam, Joe Doles, organizer Amir Ziv, Shelley Ravipudi, Geneva Moody, Butch Jones, and myself. 

In the end, most participants agreed:  Landlords are investors who purchase property for income or price appreciation -- investments he or she should want to protect.  Crime and criminals -- either in the neighborhood or on the property -- are among the top risks to that investment.  

-- Mike Martin for the Columbia Heart Beat

Nuisances put focus on arrests
Homes of offenders draw scrutiny of city council

City plans for more rental oversight
Landlords face more scrutiny.

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