Kyle Magin
Staff Writer

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February 11, 2010
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Ordinance would force landlords to wrangle in tenants - or pay

The stereotype of a tough, low-rent landlord doesn't fit Harold George.

As he leans in to hear you, George cups his hand over his ear to amplify your voice through the stale air of his Neal Street home. The thin, slightly bent, brightly smiling 89-year-old sits on an old piano bench, hemmed in by a lifetime of collections.

Tools, boxes of books and stacks of assorted housewares form a miniature city on the floor. For more than 60 years he's lived there, renting out 11 properties throughout Grass Valley. The tenants he rents to are sometimes down on their luck, navigating the rough waters of alcoholism, drug abuse and disability.

"We're trying to rehabilitate them," George said.

His tenants also are frequently in trouble with the law.

Under a new "good landlord" ordinance proposed in Grass Valley, George and other landlords in town could face fines, misdemeanor charges and even jail time for the behavior of their tenants.

In 2009, Grass Valley Police responded to 65 calls for service at two of George's properties.

The City Council's proposed ordinance aims to hold landlords to account for extensive police activity at their properties. The ordinance says properties such as his are a chronic nuisance and impact the quality of life in the neighborhoods they occupy.

"We're looking for some way to bring the property owners to the table," said Grass Valley Police Chief John Foster. "We want them to be part of the solution."

Chronically troubled properties keep police too occupied, Foster said, preventing his officers from adequately protecting the entire community.

Council members approved an ordinance on first reading this week that would fine the owners of nuisance properties up to $500; in addition, if the problems continue, officials could pursue a criminal misdemeanor charge carrying a $1,000 fine.

The council will vote again at the second reading of the ordinance at their meeting starting at 7 p.m. March 9.

The ordinance got its legs late last year after a group of residents from North Church Street complained about rowdy tenants and set up meetings with Councilman Chauncey Poston.

Drug dealing, fights and public drunkenness were common complaints against tenants in some of the North Church rental properties.

In a city where rentals account for about 57 percent of the single-family dwellings, unresponsive landlords are a problem, Poston said.

"These landlords are simply renting to people and not responding to the problems that are there," Poston said. "That's a problem. It's a problem with the people in the neighborhood who don't want to see it go downhill."

Longtime residents and those who are in search of a quiet place to live are frequently at odds with a small handful of questionable renters near the 300 block of North Church Street, said resident Diane Chayra. She and a former neighbor collected 30 signatures in the area to bring to the City Council after noticing problem homes on her block.

"There are people constantly going up and down the street and parking in front of one particular house for 10 minutes before taking off," Chayra said. "People will be very drunk, and the smell of marijuana is everywhere."

After reporting fights and public drunkenness near her home on the 300 block, Chayra said some of the people involved in those calls taunted her with jeers of "snitch" as she walked through the neighborhood.

"It's very uncomfortable," Chayra said.

The discomfort level too much for resident Eric Rice, who, with his wife, bought a home last year. He's tired of the drug deals and fights, he said.

Those landlords need a share of the responsibility to clean these properties up, Foster said.

Eric Coker, 20, has lived about a year and a half at one of George's duplexes on South School Street. His address logged 40 calls for service in 2009, not counting medical calls. The calls were for arguments, traffic and allegations of drug use, according to dispatch reports.

Coker - who himself has called the police - didn't seem surprised when told of the tally, but said the present tenants of the properties aren't the only ones to blame.

"A lot of kids hang out here, and some drug addicts," Coker said. "There's a lot that goes into the problems. There's (previous) tenants and the people who visit and associate with them."

And perhaps, he suggested, some neighbors are too sensitive.

"We've got neighbors who will call in every little thing," Coker said.

"I don't know what they want me to do," George said about the ordinance. "I've talked with my tenants, but I don't feel there's much I can do."

He won't evict his tenants, George said. In 60-plus years of renting properties, he has asked people to leave a handful of times.

"I'm between a rock and a hard place," George said. "It just seems like a real shake, rattle and roll by the police. At this point, everybody is looking for money."

The idea is to force landlords to step up the pressure on tenants, Poston said.

"It's designed to bring a third responsible entity into the group," Poston said. "We need to put the responsibility where it belongs - with the property owner. If they do not respond to what's going on at their property, then they need to be held accountable for that."

Landlords would be notified if more than one calls for police service were recorded for a property within 30 days and asked to respond to it. If the violations continue, citations could be delivered, along with fines for administrative expenses incurred with the violation and even criminal charges.

Sitting next-door to the home he was born in on Neal Street in 1920, George shakes his head.

"I wouldn't be very happy about it" if police enforce the ordinance, he said.

To contact Staff Writer Kyle Magin, e-mail or call (530) 477-4239.

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The Union Updated Feb 12, 2010 12:32PM Published Feb 11, 2010 10:48PM Copyright 2010 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.