Leader Blues

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

TOP STORY >> Landlords wrestle with city proposal

By JONATHAN FELDMAN
Leader staff writer

The Jacksonville Landlord Association meeting at the Esther Nixon library Thursday was a contentious one with several members criticizing the organization’s support for Mayor Gary Fletcher’s plan to create a citywide landlord registry.

The registry would compile information from a tenant’s payment history to how many times the police are called to a tenant’s home.

Presumably, the ordinance would also ban problematic tenants — those who have had numerous police calls to their homes — from living in the city. Many association members found out about the plan from news reports.

“There is no ordinance yet,” association board member Kevin Smith said.

But at the city council’s Jan. 7 meeting, a document with the header “Jacksonville Landlord Ordinance” was distributed to council members.

Board members apologized for not communicating better with the association’s members and said they instead acted a bit over-zealously in their desire to clean up the city.

“In 30 years in Jacksonville, nothing has changed,” board member Mike Wilson said in a conciliatory tone.

“We want property values to go up. We want to make more money on our rental properties,” Wilson said.

“The process has got to start somewhere, and luckily we have an administration that wants to work with us,” he said.

“I think the issue is ‘who are you representing’ — the city of Jacksonville or the Jacksonville Landlords Association,” Mike Corker of Sherwood, who owns 250 apartments in Jacksonville, asked board members.

“The thing says ‘Jacksonville Landlord Ordinance.’ You can call it whatever you want, but that’s what it says,” Corker said as he held up the paper that was presented to the city council.

But that was a nonbinding initial proposal, too incomplete to even be called a draft, according to members of the board and city officials.

The document was culled from information from the Internet by Alderman Bob Stroud, and it was intended to be more of a conversation starter than a draft proposal.

“Good people are moving out, and bad people are moving in,” Fletcher said.

He wants to reverse that trend and more.

“I want them out of town,” the mayor said.

The mayor said that when landlords manage to evict trouble-making tenants, those same troublemakers rent another house in town, often in the same neighborhood, which the mayor called a “shell game of bad tenants.”

City administrator Jim Durham, who also attended the meeting, said, “There’s a lot of good people who live in Sunnyside but a lot of them belong in the penitentiary. Let them go live in North Little Rock or the county. They’re human beings, they’ve got to live somewhere, but I want them out of town.

“Police are getting bogged down in a certain area and that’s got to stop,” Durham said.

Fletcher made it clear that Sunnyside was not the only problem neighborhood in Jacksonville.

“We get police calls all over. There was a shooting in a nice neighborhood the other day,” he said.

But Sunnyside poses tough challenges for landlords and police.

The mayor displayed a chart of Sunnyside, which highlighted homes that have received multiple police calls. The mayor said he found 37 homes, which policemen were called to in the last six months; 25 of them were rentals.

“One house, I’ve counted nine calls in the last six months,” Fletcher said.

Since he took office, Fletcher has counted 1,032 police calls to Sunnyside. At that rate, approximately 200 per month, the police department will respond to 2,400 calls this year.

“You’re wanting landlords to replace the role of the police. I cannot control the people that I rent to,” said an audience member.

But Police Chief Gary Sipes disagreed. “I’m a landlord myself. I make sure I know what’s going on on my property,” he said.

“You can’t rent to decent people over there with what’s available. The police are the only ones who can take care of it. You get tired of putting money into a property there,” another audience member said.

Alderman Terry Sansing asked the audience to consider the benefits of a database. Sansing was especially supportive of a database’s potential to track rent jumpers, which he said would be of value to landlords. In theory, landlords could turn down prospective renters with a history of delinquent payments.

The mayor sees the group as having the potential to positively transform the city, and he asked for its members’ cooperation.

“I’m not going to ram an ordinance through, but I’m not going to have my hands tied by an individual or a group. I want to stay true to my commitment to clean up this city,” he said.

“We, as an association, can step up or we can step back, and let someone else draft the ordinance and take what we get,” Wilson said.

The landlords will meet again at 3 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 28 at the Nixon Library to figure that out.

For more information, e-mail jaxllassoc@gmail.com.