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Willmar's new rental housing inspector is keeping busy

Since the beginning of his job with the city in March, Ryan Tilleman has condemned one house and abated junk from several properties in Willmar.

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Ryan Tilleman, who joined the city of Willmar in March as the rental inspector, has been busy during his first few months on the job.
West Central Tribune file photo
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WILLMAR — Willmar’s new rental inspector has been busy since joining city staff in March, condemning one house for standing sewage and completing a few abatements — actions by the city to remedy violations of the rental housing ordinance.

Having that inspector position in place has also brought to light a need to change city ordinances in order to allow the Planning and Development Department to address the issues it is finding in the community.

Ryan Tilleman, Willmar rental housing inspector, and Planning and Development Director Justice Walker spoke last month to the Willmar City Council about what they are seeing in the community.

“The overall reception I’d say is generally pretty positive,” Walker told the council about now having a rental inspector. “People have been very appreciative that they now have a resource they can call if they know someone is having troubles or issues with their landlord (or) they feel that their neighbor’s not picking up something. I think in the past there used to be this idea that the city has an ordinance for something, but the city doesn’t do anything about it.”

However, having a rental housing inspector is uncovering some bigger issues that are going to take more of a systematic overhaul to address, Walker said, noting the city is already getting to know property owners and identifying potential problem landlords.

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Since news of Tilleman's new post has spread, local tenants with complaints about their rental properties have been keeping him busy.

One of the goals of the Planning Department is to fill a gap in education about the rights and responsibility of landlords and tenants, Walker said. This would include building relationships with some of the organizations in town that provide rental resources to which the city can refer tenants.

“We kind of need to be in a role where we can have our ear to the ground and also be more aware and out front, to let people know we are here as a resource for you, to protect you, in a way,” Walker told the council.

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A “vibrant” community is also causing some issues with rental housing, as the language barrier can cause issues in understanding rights and responsibilities. “They don’t know what they are entitled to, they don’t know what they can ask for, they don’t know who to tell their problem to,” Walker said.

Before sharing photos of some problem properties in Willmar, Walker made sure to inform the council this is not the norm in Willmar.

“Some of these exercises sometimes draw the negatives of what is going on in a community and don’t really speak to what the whole is, so I want to say, on the broader scale, I think the large majority of our property owners and a large majority of our landlords in town are good property owners, good landlords,” he said. “What you're going to see in this is not the regular. This is not what all rental properties look like, but these are still big enough problems that they need to be addressed.”

The first photo Tilleman shared was of a rental duplex that for six weeks had standing raw sewage in one of the units. He condemned the house and provided housing resources for the two families who had to leave.

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Some of the issues the Willmar rental inspector has investigated is mold problems in rental housing units.
Contributed

Tilleman also shared pictures of homes with mold problems and some pictures of rental properties that had accumulations of junk on the property. Property owners are issued an order by the city to take care of any problems that exist within their rental properties.

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When the property owner or renter refuses to take care of the junk, which includes scrap appliances and inoperable vehicles, city staff will abate the problem by removing the junk and charge the property owner for the staff's time.

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Some rental properties in Willmar have issues with the storage of junk on the property, such as old appliances or inoperable vehicles. If not taken care of by the property owner or the renter, city staff will abate the junk and charge the owner for the cost of city staff's time.
Contributed

While problem landlords with consistent issues on their properties are being identified, the city currently does not have a process for removing their licenses if issues are not remedied, Walker explained to the council.

Currently, the city issues rental licenses for a period of three years, rather than needing to be renewed annually, he said. One option would be to use a graduated process for new or problem landlords, issuing an annual license for a certain amount of time before allowing longer and longer license periods.

There should also be a process in place to remove a landlord’s rental license for not fixing issues on their properties, such as having an ordinance with punitive measures that allow the city to address some of the issues, he added.

Walker would also like to see an expedited process for problems that have to be addressed, and a better way to take care of abatements so it doesn’t fall on the city’s Public Works Department. He suggested possibly contracting an outside entity for abatements..

Willmar City Councilor Justin Ask wanted to know how long it would be until the Planning and Development Department was able to recommend ordinance changes to help address rental housing issues.

Noting how busy the department is at this time, Walker said it would probably come to the council between late fall of 2022 and the end of the year.

Willmar City Councilor Audrey Nelsen encouraged Walker to ask the council for additional resources if they are needed to address rental housing problems.

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Walker assured the council he would do that, adding that they are still learning the community and what to expect, as well as where the city can help.

“You’ve got to be nimble about some of these things,” he said, adding that there are things the department would like to aggressively address, but there are also questions about where people who cannot pass a background check can live.

“Some of the slumlords, they provide a function in the market,” he continued, noting the term “slumlord” is not a term he should really be using, but an easy term to explain his point to the council. “It’s being nimble enough to ... do we want some of these places to have minimal restrictions for some people who can’t qualify to live in other places? Or, do we want to take that away and force them out entirely?”

In conclusion, Walker stated, “(These are) big macro-level questions that we have that we are trying to work through entirely and trying to figure out how we are going to enforce this, and what we are going to take into it. It’s identifying those things and learning the process and understanding at what magnitude are these issues existing. Are some of these singular problems, or are some of these really community-wide problems that we really have to be aggressive about?”

Jennifer Kotila is a reporter for West Central Tribune of Willmar, Minnesota. She focuses on local government, specifically the City of Willmar, and business.

She can be reached via email at: jkotila@wctrib.com or phone at 320-214-4339.
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