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Trying to figure out Evanston’s muddled rental regulations

Arguably, Evanston has more residential rental policies on the books than any other municipality in Illinois -- the last thing Evanston needs is more.

Arguably, Evanston has more residential rental policies on the books than any other municipality in Illinois.  That statement is not hyperbole for this article.  The vast majority of Illinois municipalities do not have rental registration, inspections, administrative adjudication, a “brothel law,” a RLTO, and the like – Evanston has them all and then some.     

The purported rationale behind each of these laws changes regularly – but generally falls under the guise of addressing safety or nuisances.  And each new proposal, it is claimed, will solve the issues prior regulations were supposed to address.  Now, Evanston officials are proposing yet another regulation – to license all rental units in town.  In fact, this has been discussed for 15 years and was last brought up for a vote in 2008.

In voting against it, former-Ald. Edmund Moran said “there are already laws and ordinances[s] in place to govern nuisance situations in buildings.”  Then-Ald. and now current Cook County Judge Steven Bernstein opined that “the City needs to be more aggressive in enforcing current ordinances in place.”  Former-Ald. Anjana Hansen pointed out that there are existing ordinances that “are not being utilized and enforced” and does not see how licensing “will help improve or ease gaining compliance from these few bad landlords.”  And then-Alderman and current Cook County Judge Lionel Jean-Baptiste weighed-in that “it is not fair to penalize the majority because of the minority bad property owners. The City should directly go after those problem landlords and buildings with the laws we already have in place.”  He went on to say he was “very concern[ed] with the revocation of licensing without necessary due process; this could cause more legal problems for the City rather than solving a nuisance building situation.”  These quotes are direct from February 2008 Planning and Development Committee minutes.

Nothing has changed since 2008 except for the fact that landlord and tenant relations with the City have considerably worsened.  Tenants have complained about hostile city inspectors entering homes unannounced, photographing sleeping tenants, and rifling through tenants’ mail.  Landlords have also expressed concerns about unprofessional practices by city staff.  Among the more shocking actions was the publicly issued blacklist of 52 rental properties in which City officials implored tenants not to rent from these properties.  While it was ultimately revealed that the vast majority of properties on the list had zero or relatively insignificant violations, and while the City quickly backpedaled, to date, the City has never apologized to the property owners, never explained how or why properties made it on the list, and the City never undertook a review or reform of their own policies.

These concerns are regularly diminished or dismissed by City officials.  This can no longer continue.  In addition to violating the rights of tenants and property owners, the City has created an atmosphere where potential buyers of rental property pass on Evanston for friendlier cities.  Among the consequences are decreased property values, increased foreclosures, increased tax burdens, and decreased economic activity.

The Daily Northwestern issued an editorial calling for the City to be “honest about their actions and intentions” as it relates to housing policies; the North Shore – Barrington Association of REALTORS® agrees.  A robust community conversation is needed now.  A number of housing issues must be substantively, not superficially addressed, and adoption of rental licensing at this time will be a gross disservice to the community.

Howard Handler is Government Affairs Director for the not-for-profit North Shore – Barrington Association of REALTORS® – the area’s leading private property advocate.  Handler, a licensed real estate broker, received his undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin – Madison, and his master’s degree in Public Policy and Administration from Northwestern University.  He can be reached at: hhandler@iar.org  

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Tim Pareti October 04, 2012 at 05:44 PM
The Evanston rental license ordinance will add more stress to a shaky real estate market still in shock. Yes, the real estate market has improved but we are nowhere out of the woods yet. There are Evanston property owners that are hurting. They are underwater, and each year they watch helplessly as home values plunge but not property taxes. The last thing we need is to add another layer of government regulation. Aldermen have admitted that the current requirement to register rental properties, an ordinance passed in 2008, is a failure. If city staff can't keep track of how many landlords are renting properties without registering how can the city keep track of landlords renting without a license? Requiring owners of condos, single-family homes and mult units to pay a fee every year to have a license to rent is not necessary, won't work and adds more stress to a stressed out real estate market where tens of thousands of property owners have seen a hefty decline in their home values. Evanston has laws on the books that are adequate tools to deal with problem landlords. Use them. Aldermen intentions are good but it's the wrong time to pass a rental license ordinance. People are hurting. Don't add to the pain.

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