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Forced to move: City Council votes to uphold renter policy, despite pleas

A curious dog watches through the screen door at the rental unit at 327 Elizabeth Street, which opens onto an alley. The Detroit Lakes City Council decided not to grandfather-in the property, which means the tenant will have to move. Nathan Bowe/Tribune

A disabled veteran, now recovering from a liver transplant, and his little sheltie-type dog will have to find a new home, and a 70-year-old woman will lose her rental income, courtesy of the Detroit Lakes City Council.

The veteran, Brian Fraser, choked up at the thought of giving up his dog while addressing the council.

"I cannot afford to move," he told the council. "This place is the only home I have, I need my dog as well ... I'll lose him if I lose my home."

In spite of pleas from him and the property owner, Laurel Carlson, a majority of aldermen voted Tuesday to reject Carlson's appeal and uphold a city staff decision to revoke her rental registration for a longtime rental unit at 327 Elizabeth Avenue.

City council members could have opted to "grandfather in" the rental unit (Carlson said it's been a rental unit since 1945, and the zoning ordinance was passed in the late 1960s) which would have removed the biggest issue staff had with the property—that there are three residential dwellings on a 7,500-square-foot lot.

(The first is Carlson's house at 325 Elizabeth Street, the second is the rental unit in her basement, and the third is the backyard unit opening onto the alley, with its own address, 327 Elizabeth.)

The city's rental inspector found code problems at 327 Elizabeth - it needs more smoke detectors and newer electrical outlets—but nothing that couldn't have been fixed pretty easily. The biggest job would have been painting the exterior and adding a larger egress window in the bedroom.

Fraser, a former carpenter, said he could do much of the painting and carpentry work himself, and Carlson said she would hire a professional electricians and plumbers as required.

"I invested a great deal of money into these apartments in the last six years," with a new roof, new kitchen range, kitchen flooring, a shower and toilet, Carlson told the council.

Other than a small monthly Social Security check, the rental units provide her only income, she said.

"I'm 70 years old, alone, this would force three people into homelessness," she told the council. "In the end, who does it hurt? It's been there since 1945 and it's hurt no one." She has rented out the unit since she bought the property in 1979, she said.

The rental inspection was made after a complaint by neighbors, Beth Olness and her husband, who own rental property of their own, all of which passed the first inspection without any code violations, they told the council.

"We've been complaining to the city about that property for years," Olness told the council. "Finally somebody did something about it." She asked the council not to grandfather-in the property.

Alderman Bruce Imholte agreed.

"It's a tough situation for Mr. Fraser, we appreciate your service," Imholte said. "But one reason we hired a (rental unit) compliance officer is to bring them up to code. Staff has done their due diligence, they worked hard at this. While this is a hardship for these folks, I think we need to enforce these rules."

Alderman Barb Voss (formerly Barb Schiller) passionately disagreed with Imholte.

"This isn't a corporation, these are people's lives," she said. "He's a veteran, she's a woman who depends on the rental income. She's done this for 40 years."

A visibly angry Imholte reminded Voss that they had discussed the matter earlier in committee, and he told a reporter he didn't want to see a story about how the city council threw a veteran out of his home.

"This is not just me saying I want to throw a veteran on the street," he said.

Alderman Ron Zeman suggested that the Detroit Lakes Housing Authority could perhaps find a new home for Fraser.

At one point Mayor Matt Brenk seemed to lean towards finding a way to grandfather-in the rental unit, and city attorney Charles Ramstad explained the law and told council members they are essentially the judges in the matter and the decision was up to them. But the tide of council opinion went the other way.

In the end, Voss voted against revoking Carlson's rental license, but the majority of the council voted to deny her appeal, although at Imholte's suggestion they gave Fraser until Dec. 31 to find a new home.

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