A Tale of Two Houses: Adjacent and With Similar Violations, Though Facing Different Consequences

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Andrew Graham for ELi

301 Charles St. (left) and 403 Ann St. (right) on Oct. 24, 2020, the day occupants of the Ann Street house were issued a citation for violating Covid-19 public health orders.

East Lansing’s Housing Commissioners faced an unusual situation at their in-person meeting on Thursday, Aug. 5, as they decided whether to impose sanctions on two adjacent student-rental properties. The houses faced similar citations — for noise, litter, and public health violations — but the outcomes turned out differently.

One rental license — for the house at 403 Ann St. — wasn’t sanctioned following a 4-2 vote in favor of a motion to decline imposing any. Commissioners Jennifer Ferguson, Alan “AJ” Wood, Irene Cahill, and Larry Rosen voted that motion through; Commission Chair Kacie Kefgen and Commissioner Janeile Cannon voted against, with both of them in favor of sanctions. (Commissioner Carrie Ihrig Freeman was absent.)

But the other rental license — for the house at 301 Charles St., just across the public right-of-way — did have sanctions imposed. That vote went 5-1, with Kefgen, Cannon, Wood, Rosen, and Cahill voting in favor. Ferguson cast the lone dissenting vote.

Both cases were referred to the Housing Commission for findings-sanctions hearings after at least five citations had been issued (and held up through court) at each respective address within a 12-month span. 

Seven citations were issued in nine months at the Charles St. house (From Aug. 2020 to May 2021) and five citations came in ten months at the Ann St. house (May 2020 to Mar. 2021). 

In both cases, the citations covered three forms of offense: noise, litter, and violations of the City’s law on public health orders during the Covid pandemic

To understand the differing decisions made by the commissioners, it’s helpful to unpack each case.

The rental house at 403 Ann St. received no sanctions, in part due to eviction of the tenants responsible for the citations.

This case originally came before the Housing Commission in June but was held up until August because the representative for the property managers originally disputed that the hearing should be held at all. 

The City ordinance that gives the Housing Commission the power to hold these hearings also includes a provision that nixes the hearing if eviction proceedings have begun prior to the City issuing notification of the hearing. Josie Lewis, who represented Community Resource Management Company (CRMC) on Thursday and in June, had argued that eviction proceedings had begun prior to the City notifying them of the hearing. But since that June hearing, City staff clarified that the City issued the notice for the hearing three days prior to CRMC beginning the process of eviction.

Last Thursday, the commission quickly worked through the first portion of the hearing, which is just to determine that the facts are straight and are enough to potentially warrant sanctions. Following a unanimous roll call vote to consider sanctions, discussions began about what to do.

The recommendation from East Lansing Housing and University Relations Administrator Annette Irwin in June was to impose a condition on the rental license: If more than one citation is issued (and held up) for litter or noise civil infractions at that address, it would trigger another findings-sanctions hearing where the license could be suspended. That condition was recommended to run until June 1, 2022.

Commissioner Wood was first to express his desire to forgo imposing any sanctions, given that Lewis of CRMC had confirmed that the tenants who had been ticketed were no longer there and that new tenants were soon to move in. 

Lewis told the commission that it is normally policy for CRMC to begin eviction proceedings after their tenants get three tickets, but this case slipped through the cracks because of a change in CRMC’s legal counsel. After the litter had been ticketed the first time, Lewis said she had maintenance staff check the property weekly for refuse.

She also noted that the lease CRMC uses includes a standard provision that explains tenants are required to follow any applicable local laws. CRMC is “beefing up” that portion of the lease, potentially drawing from the City’s own lease addendum, Lewis said on Thursday.

“We don’t want this reputation,” Lewis said, adding that this was the first time CRMC had been before the Housing Commission in this capacity. 

Andrew Graham for ELi

The Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity at 301 Charles St. (left) and 403 Ann St. (right) on Oct. 24, 2020, the day occupants of the Ann Street house were issued a citation for violating Covid-19 public health orders.

While Wood eventually got three other commissioners to vote with him and not impose any conditions, Cannon and Kefgen did offer reasons they saw not to be lenient.

While Wood didn’t want to make new tenants pay for the bad behaviors of tenants-past, Cannon pointed out that the law in question is about policing landlords as much as renters. 

“This is an opportunity to hold a management company accountable,” Cannon said.

Kefgen concurred, noting that CRMC had chances to mitigate the issues and didn’t, for whatever reason. She also said she thought it was important for the commissioners to be “predictable” in regards to what this Council-appointed body might do in imposing sanctions and said that, in the past, they consistently had imposed them.

But, in this case, Kefgen and Cannon’s desire to impose sanctions was outvoted by the other four members present, in large part because of the previous tenants being evicted.

So, what about the house across the street — at 301 Charles St. — made it sanction-worthy in the eyes of the Housing Commission?

For one, the nature of the rental. While the house at 403 Ann St. is a “multi-family” older rental house, 301 Charles St. is a fraternity, the home to the Michigan State University chapter of the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity, with a history of problems in the eyes of the City. 

So, while the house across the street is owned by a private company (CRMC) and run by professional property managers, the house at 301 Charles St. is owned by an alumni group and operates without a professional property manager. 

Additionally, the commission originally presumed that in a fraternity there’d be less turnover at a frat than a house where new groups of tenants typically move in-and-out yearly. But that notion was dispelled in this case, as the commission was told that Pi Kappa Alpha has a requirement that all members live in their house for one year. According to Peter Schall, an MSU PhD student and chapter advisor to Pi Kappa Alpha, there is “almost 99-percent turnover” of who lives in this frat house year-to-year.

While this did change the commissioners’ presumptions, they concluded that the organization persists through the house via social events and the like, regardless of who specifically is living there.

Schall also said that he wasn’t there to “quibble” over the facts and apologized for the conduct of the prior year’s residents. He also acknowledged that the rental license for the house had previously had conditions imposed — in 2015 and 2017 — but argued that last year was an outlier from an upward trend of behavior since those 2017 conditions. 

Schall said that, once the fraternity could meet in person, they would be changing their bylaws to make it a punishable offense for members to commit litter and noise violations. He invited the fraternities Sergeant-at-Arms to explain that the members who had been found responsible for these behaviors had been fined. Schall also said that 20 members of the fraternity have been removed since these tickets, but didn’t indicate that it was tied directly to these issues.

On the whole, commissioners were unpersuaded that last year’s behavior represented an outlier year, and they weren’t particularly interested in an alternate timeline of conditions proposed by Schall. 

Ultimately, the commission voted 5-1 to impose the full year of sanctions as recommended by Irwin, with only Ferguson opposing. This means that more than one citation for party litter or noise civil infractions will bring the license back before the Housing Commission. 

Right after the vote, Commissioner Cannon expressed concern that the Housing Commission had treated a management company differently than a Greek organization.

Cannon had increasingly expressed concern throughout both hearings about coming to differing conclusions in these cases and made this feeling known after the second vote.

Speaking from her long history as a member of City staff, Irwin pointed out that the commission is to consider each case on its own merits, and not necessarily worry about how they’re treating specific groups. 

Commissioner Larry Rosen also responded to Cannon’s comment, saying he was comfortable treating these two houses and licenses differently, as they are different in notable ways. A fraternity, Rosen said, can be defined as a “boarding house,” whereas a regular rental house like the one at Ann St. cannot.

Note that the Housing Commission is likely to hold a joint meeting with the Planning Commission on September 22 at the Hannah Community Center in order to discuss the Housing Study and next steps in policy development. Read more in ELi’s report from Planning Commission.

Correction, Aug. 10, 2021: This article was amended to correct the surname of Peter Schall. (We had reported his surname as Shaw.)

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