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Relying on tenants to file complaints doesn't work

Some tenants may be just too scared to file complaints about substandard housing. That's one reason Red Wing city staff and inspectors want to change the housing code.

"The crux of the problem is that right now our ordinance is enforced entirely by a complaint process," City Planner Brian Peterson said. "In other words, we have no right as a city or inspectors to go into a property to see if it's meeting our codes unless we receive a complaint."

A complaint-driven process doesn't work well, in his view.

"The tenants who are in the poorest kept properties tend not to complain. There are a number of reasons, potentially, for that. They may be concerned about retaliation. They may just not have other options. If their units are determined uninhabitable, they don't have anywhere else to go," he said.

"These tenants also may not be educated about their rights," he added. He can count on his hand the number of tenants who have complained this year. Many more problems clearly exist, however, as inspections for other reasons prove. City inspectors visit buildings for zoning violations, he said, and discover such things as disconnected smoke alarms, improperly installed furnaces and wiring done without a permit.

"Lots of 'improvements' get done without the proper permits," Peterson said. "We see life-threatening things. Safety issues."v The complaint-driven law requires cumbersome paperwork and eventually a warrant. In addition, a complaint must come from a specific tenant. When a multi-unit property is involved, inspectors aren't necessarily allowed into an adjoining unit or the basement, Peterson said. That's a problem when wiring, plumbing and heating systems are involved.

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Anne Jacobson

Anne Jacobson has been editor of the Republican Eagle since December 2003. 

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