Too many Tulsans teeter on the edge of homelessness, according to Michael Brose, executive director of the Mental Health Association in Tulsa.
"There's a shortage of affordable housing in the Tulsa community," Brose said. The nonprofit he leads also is a landlord, operating 18 apartment buildings for a total of about 650 units as part of a nationally-lauded approach to preventing homelessness.
Brose expressed concerns about Mayor Dewey Bartlett's proposal to require apartment owners to have a license, an idea championed by Bartlett in the wake of the Jan. 7 shooting deaths of four women at the Fairmont Terrace apartment complex.
The 336-unit site has become well known as a crime hot spot, with three fatal shooting incidents since the beginning of August.
Brose questioned, however, the idea that the focus should be squarely on apartments.
"I think the mayor is going about this in a very narrow, sort of reactionary manner that has widespread impact," Brose said.
Bartlett, along with police and neighborhood leaders, expressed concern about absentee ownership of some apartments. Bartlett has said that such owners often don't respond to safety concerns.
Details of his proposal have not been presented, and he's talked about how any proposal will go before the Tulsa City Council before becoming law.
But Bartlett has said the city "must have a hammer" when dealing with apartment owners. He's said the city should be able to revoke apartment licenses, likening the idea to how liquor licenses can be taken away by state authorities.
Brose said he's waiting to hear Bartlett talk about how this would affect the availability of housing, particularly low-income housing.
"So when the mayor says, we're going to license them, and if they don't do XYZ, we may force them to close, well, where are these people going to live at?" Brose said.
Brose said his group "would be very willing and interested to meet with the mayor's office and talk about common issues of safety and security."
The association is a member of a larger group of apartment owners, the Tulsa Apartment Association, which issued a firmly-worded statement Feb. 7 in which the group stated members are "disappointed" with Bartlett for not meeting with the group.
"From the reports TAA has seen to date it is evident that the Mayor does not understand the operations of professionally owned apartment communities. TAA has reached out to Mayor Bartlett on several occasions and has not received a response. The association is willing to meet with the Mayor to inform him of the general practices of responsible owners and managers and work with him to come up with a solution for crime in Tulsa," the statement read in part.
Before the statement was issued, Lloyd Wright, the mayor's press secretary, said in an interview that "unified apartment management would be involved" in helping develop details for the licensing proposal.
Courtesy of Mental Health Association of Tulsa
Mayor Bartlett was traveling when the statement was issued and unavailable for comment before deadline.
His office released a statement, however, which read in part: "Once there is a proposal to discuss, meetings with those who would be potentially impacted would be set and feedback would be encouraged. A few individual apartment owners have already provided some feedback to mayoral staff and all input from citizens will be considered. However, Mayor Bartlett is very serious about giving the citizens of Tulsa more influence in their neighborhoods by creating rules and regulations that make it more difficult for absentee landlords to neglect their Tulsa properties."
Keri Cooper, executive director for the apartment association, noted that though several city councilors attended a Jan. 15 luncheon held by the association to discuss safety in apartments, Bartlett did not attend. She added that "last minute notice" was given about the meeting, however.
She said the group asked to take part in a forum on crime held Jan. 29, but was told that they would not be on the panel.
About Bartlett's proposal, she said, "I think our biggest concern is we don't know what that includes."
Courtesy of Mental Health Association of Tulsa
She went on to list questions members have about the idea: "Who registers? Is it just apartments? Is it townhomes? Is it condos? Is it rental houses? I think one of our biggest issues is that we don't see a correlation of how registering is going to solve this problem of crime."
In the forum event, Deputy Chief Dennis Larsen with the Tulsa Police Department described stark differences between local owners and those from out of the area.
Those who live in Tulsa or nearby "are very responsive" to police concerns, and "step up to the plate almost immediately and say, 'What can we do? We don't want this in the place we own and rent out,'" he said.
But "absentee owners are our biggest headaches because we have very little leverage," Larsen said.
While Bartlett has said out-of-state owners are hard to reach, Cooper questioned the city's outreach efforts.
"I think I'm curious to know what steps they're taking to reach out to out-of-state owners at this point," Cooper said, adding that there may be "ways to improve on the current system of reaching out."
Fairmont Terrace is owned by representatives of California-based SolRey Properties, though a deal is pending to sell the property to Missouri-based owners. That group was recently approved for tax credits to renovate the property.
The management company for Fairmont Terrace, LynCo, is a member of the Tulsa Apartment Association; association president, Gary Goss, is an executive with LynCo.
At the forum, Larsen described specific recommendations for reducing apartment crime. "Light it, gate it, put good security in it and you evict anybody who commits a felony in their apartment," Larson said, adding, "We haven't seen those out-of-state owners willing to do that," Larsen said.
Vicki Been, director of the Furman Center for Real Estate and Public Policy and a law professor at New York University, said most cities "have the ability to basically condemn the housing and close it and sell it at auction" after a judicial proceeding. Sometimes cities levy "fines so high it becomes not useful or profitable for them to operate the property," she said.
The Tulsa City Council in 2010 approved changes to the city's nuisance abatement codes, at the time hailed as a crackdown on vacant properties. The city may impose fines and even jail time on property owners under this law.
John Roman, a senior fellow with the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute, said he there may be a trend with cities enforcing more regulation on rental property.
In Charlotte, for example, a new law which took effect Jan. 1 requires rental property owners to register online with local police.
Roman said he favors cities taking a hands-on approach.
"I often think that cities don't exert enough power to improve places. They're very reluctant, especially when talking about anything involving property rights. The problem is that there are real negative consequences to the neighborhood and to the places where bad properties exist. To sort of wave your hands and say, 'It's private property, there's nothing we can do,' means you're allowing a lot of negative things to happen to people and it's your job to stop these things," Roman said.
A statement from the mayor's office noted that Midwest City and other cities require the licensing of rental property. Cooper said that in Midwest City and in other cities, "the police department and apartment association work together to put these programs together."
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