Homeowner hits dead end as City of Dickinson threatens fines
As SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, swept the world in 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) took unprecedented action by issuing a temporary national moratorium on evictions for nonpayment of rent as a means to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Citing the historic threat to public health posed by coronavirus, the CDC declared that an eviction moratorium would help ensure people are able to practice social distancing and comply with stay-at-home orders.
On Tuesday, Aug. 3, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky extended the moratorium in her signing of an extension order that determined the continuation of the eviction moratorium as a matter of public health.
The newest order is set to expire on October 3, and applies to counties experiencing substantial and high levels of community transmission levels of SARS-CoV-2 — which Stark County does not currently have according to the latest numbers from the North Dakota Department of Health.
Now some landlords in Dickinson are crying foul amidst growing financial hardships and municipal fines as hopes for an end to the moratorium remain uncertain.
True White, a property owner of multiple homes in Dickinson, shared her experiences with one tenant who has gone more than a year without paying rent, causing undue financial hardships on her. After two unsuccessful attempts at having the matter resolved in court, the courts have continued to rule in favor of the tenant, citing the CDC COVID eviction moratorium.
“I’ve tried everything to fix this problem, but the tenants won’t answer my calls,” White said. “They have a golden ticket to stay in my home and there’s nothing I can do about it but pay fines to the city for them.”
According to White, land owners have lost all previously held benefit of their property while maintaining the financial liability and associated legal liability of their property.
“We tried to evict them twice and have been to court, but both times they were allowed to stay despite the fact that they are over 13 months without paying a penny,” White said. “The moratorium says that we cannot evict them based on rent owed. These people have received, like most in the United States, huge sums of money from the federal government in stimuluses. Despite all this money they’ve received, in addition to still working their jobs, they haven’t paid me anything. Not a penny. This isn’t a matter of being indigent or having been negatively affected by this pandemic, it’s a matter of being a squatter with the court’s protection while the city hounds me with fines.”
Now expounding on the financial difficulty of having people living rent free in her home, White faces court costs associated with the failed attempts to remove the unpaid tenants, attorney fees for her legal representation and an accompaniment of letters of notice for fines from the City of Dickinson for failing to maintain her yard in compliance with city ordinances — among others.
Among the many issues facing White as a homeowner is that the current residents have not paid their city utilities, and the city has refused to shut them off — instead, sending her notices of fines if they are not paid.
“$16,000 is hard enough to lose as an income, but it’s much more than just the tenants not paying rent. When tenants don’t pay their city utilities the land owner gets a huge fine. When tenants don’t follow pet ordinances, the land owner gets a huge fine. And on and on it goes. There used to be legal action for landowners through the courts, but the moratorium has removed that and stuck owners footing the bill,” White said. “Now I’m getting letters from the city with fines for weeds in alleys, unkept yards and stuff. Those are $500 fines.”
According to a letter received by White, the city stated that they will impose a fine of $500 if one of her tenant's yards wasn't mowed and weeded by Monday, Aug. 16. With little options available and no legal recourse, White drove to the home and began cutting the grass and pulling the weeds herself — while the residents remained indoors, refusing to come to the door.
“I’m 83 and I was over there on Friday, sweating in the sun doing this yard work so that I wouldn’t be fined while they were inside the house,” White said. “I couldn’t afford to have that fine levied, because if the landowner doesn’t pay the fine then the city will place a lien against your property for the amount owed. It’s just an endless penalizing of owners. This is not right.”
Adding insult to injury for White, the Dickinson Police were called by the residents who were inside as she tended to the weeds in the yard. The residents told police that White’s vehicle was blocking their driveway.
“The police came to the house and said that I had to move my car from their driveway. Wait a minute, ‘this is my house’ I said. But I’m always the bad guy,” she said. “What am I to do with this situation? Shame on them and shame on this city for doing this.”
Diane Duchscher, a real estate agent in Dickinson, saw White working in the yard and being familiar with the situation said she was saddened by how the entire ordeal has played out.
"Something is very wrong when deadbeat tenants have more rights than an 83-year-old woman who has to be out cutting weeds in the middle of summer in 100 degree weather to avoid a property fine," Duchscher said.
Attempts to reach city officials to inquire about possible recourse for homeowners in White’s situation went unresponsive, but a May 18, 2020 letter from the building department summarizes the city’s stance on unkept yards and fines.
“In order to safeguard the quality of life for residents of the City of Dickinson the city adopts codes and ordinances. These codes and ordinances protect the health safety and welfare of the public by creating safe buildings and communities. The City of Dickinson Municipal Code can be found on the City of Dickinson’s web page at dickinsongov.com,” the letter reads. “In order to notify property owners within the City of Dickinson on individual ordinances, letters are sent by first class mail and a door hanger may be placed on the front door. These are generally notices of a violation. Every summer the majority of the notices are high grass and weeds. The City of Dickinson policy on high grass and weeds is a maximum of 10 inches in height. In 2019, 1,180 compliance notices were mailed. Our department receives notices of complaints from residents within the zoning jurisdiction of the City of Dickinson. The City of Dickinson employs seasonal staff to assist in meeting the needs of the City of Dickinson for code compliance.”