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Rent ordinance worth commission review

The power of the press and civil protest were fully on display recently over a two-month rental standoff between former Birmingham mayor Dorothy Conrad, 88, and the owners of Baldwin House, the senior living facility that, in a stroke of irony only real life can bring, she helped bring to the community almost 40 years ago.

Conrad, by her own admission, is very outspoken, whether in keeping city staff and elected officials to task after she left office – or what she described as a “few run-ins” she had with Tina Marzoff, the manager of Baldwin House. Key problems between her and Marzoff seemed to be about her attempts to organize a residents' group – particularly problematic to management after Conrad noticed, and informed Birmingham officials, of a violation of a 1994 agreement between the city and Baldwin House, in which the city would provide the senior living facility with 69 parking spaces in the Chester parking structure free of charge to give to residents for their use. Instead, Baldwin has been charging those residents $90 a month for years – when the spots go for $50 to the public, and has been using the free monthly passes for employees and contractors. It's believed there are hundreds of thousands of dollars that may have been fleeced from the city by violating the contract. The city is reviewing the parking agreement and determining whether legal action will be taken.

But, Conrad was shocked, as was Birmingham officials and numerous residents, when Baldwin House officials pulled her initial lease renewal in September, after she questioned a mark on her new lease, and informed her she had 30 days to vacate the premises. Conrad hired an attorney, and despite her age, showed she is still a fighter.

Word rapidly spread – a senior living facility in the center of the downtown, designed to allow our elderly to age with grace and dignity, was instead acting like a bully. Its owners, members of the Gregory J. Schwartz & Co. family, were not outside owners, but from Bloomfield Hills and Birmingham. The “retaliatory eviction,” as Conrad's attorney phrased it, looked like it was going to put an 88-year-old widow out right before the holidays for speaking up about herself and others.

After news articles and a protest of about 65 people outside the facility, attorneys on both sides worked things out, and Conrad was presented with the same lease as all other tenants. She is staying put.

The incident exposed two things: for those in the workplace or who have served on philanthropic boards, it appeared as a glaring misstep by Baldwin House management to not co-opt Conrad to their side. When there is a squeaky wheel who offers to organize to make things better, wise managers invite them to help form an “executive committee” on their side, to help them do the work. Before the rabble-rouser realizes it, they're working together.

But even more glaring was the community discovery that Baldwin House – and many other local senior living facilities – only provide month-to-month leases.

To prevent similar situations from continuing to happen, in early October, the Ann Arbor City Council adopted a “Right to Renew” ordinance, where landlords will not be permitted to deny a tenant to renew their lease without cause. If they do, they will have to pay the tenant up to two times the current rent to cover the cost of moving. The new ordinance states that landlords must make a “good faith” renewal effort no later than 180 days before the end of the lease.

It's time for the Birmingham City Commission to take this issue up and have staff create a right to renew rental ordinance that fits this community. In Ann Arbor, their rental ordinance pertains to the number of college students, which does not fit this community. It should be tailored to respecting and protecting those who need it: seniors, disabled, youth and those who are seeking to live a good life in a beautiful city.


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