Faced with a room full of angry landlords, Evanston aldermen decided Monday night to delay action on a controversial ordinance that would require rental property owners to license their buildings.
Over the past several months, a committee composed of Evanston landlords, residents and tenants drafted the ordinance, which gives the city the power to revoke a landlord’s license to operate and exact a fine if rental units do not meet city code.
Members of the committee, many of whom attended the meeting, say the ordinance is designed to ensure that Evanston’s more than 13,000 rental units are safe for tenants. They cite 17 other municipalities in the state of Illinois that license rental dwellings, including Des Plaines, Mount Prospect and Oak Park.
“Not all landlords are bad. Not all living conditions off campus are bad,” said committee member and Northwestern University student Steve Monacelli. “But there are occasional bad apples…and this would provide a mechanism that would allow us to have a check on fundamentally poor and unsafe living conditions.”
Numerous landlords who attended the meeting, however, said they believe the ordinance would be yet another burden on already overtaxed local business owners—and that the penalties outlined are too draconian.
“I used to be proud to say I live in the city of Evanston,” said rental property owner Beverly Dyer. “But right now, at 65 years old, I just feel like Evanston is raping me as a landlord.”
The proposed ordinance would require rental property owners to obtain a license from the city and renew it every year, for an annual fee of $26. Property owners are already required to register their buildings with the city, for a fee of $30.
If the ordinance is approved, city staff could revoke the license of a property owner if he or she does not comply with city code on buildings, zoning, nuisance and sanitation, among other areas. Grounds for revocation include a violation of ’ which prohibits occupation of any dwelling unit by more than three unrelated people unless the landlord has obtained a special use permit from the city.
Before revoking a license, the city manager must first hold a hearing with the property owner and would then issue a decision within 10 days, based on the nature of the violation and the property owner’s record with the city, according to the proposed ordinance.
Landlords who do not have a current and valid license would be fined $500 for the first offense, $1,000 for the second offense in a one-year period and $2,500 for the third and any subsequent offense in a one-year period, according to the proposed ordinance. The ordinance also states that “a separate offense shall be deemed committed each day during which a violation occurs or continues.”
Sketching a situation in which a landlord was faced with evicting a tenant responsible for a code violation or facing the fee for a revoked license, landlord Albert Corella described the proposed ordinance as “unbelievable.”
“This is like a totalitarian government,” he said.
Evicting a tenant can take up to six months, several property owners said, explaining they objected to the proposal that their license could be revoked if a tenant was responsible for, say, a nuisance violation like excessive noise.
“You should not be punished and fined for somebody else’s malfeasance,” said attorney Bernard Hammer, who represents a rental property owner in Evanston.
Brendan Saunders, director of advocacy and organizing for the Interfaith Housing Center of the North Suburbs, said he believes the city needs a clear system to protect both tenants and landlords, giving tenants notice if they live in a property that might lose its license, and giving landlords clarity on inspection procedures.
Several property owners said they believe the city’s current inspection and registration system is enough to protect tenants, and that a licensing system would simply be a redundancy.
“What specific single thing will this proposal do that isn’t already enabled on the books?” asked Alan Barr, who owns a two-flat apartment building. “If Evanston didn’t have such a checkered record in inspecting specific apartments, it might sound more plausible.”
Barbara Janes, a committee member, said she had heard many of the same criticisms during the meetings leading up to Monday’s city council meeting.
“Renting your property is a business. We license businesses in the city,” Janes said. “I don’t see any reason why landlords who are running a business shouldn’t be licensed.”
Janes also said that inspectors and city staff have stated that they would be willing to work with landlords if there were violations.
Following an hour of heated comments by supporters and opponents of the ordinance, Ald. Don Wilson moved to refer the issue back to city staff for further revision.
“These are legitimate concerns that have yet to be addressed,” Wilson said.
Without discussion, aldermen voted 8-0 in favor of sending the proposed ordinance back for further review. Ald. Coleen Burrus recused herself from the vote, since she herself rents property in the city of Evanston.