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Fire prompts call for shutoff reporting

Following a Rogers Park fire that killed six children in a candle-lit apartment with no electric service, three Evanston aldermen urged city staff Monday to develop an ordinance requiring utility companies or landlords to tell the city when gas or electric service is cut off.

Following a Rogers Park fire that killed six children in a candle-lit apartment with no electric service, three Evanston aldermen urged city staff Monday to develop an ordinance requiring utility companies or landlords to tell the city when gas or electric service is cut off.

“I think the law department could make a public safety argument that they [the utilities] should turn over this information,” Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, said.

The utilities argue that customer privacy rules bar them from disclosing service cutoffs.

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said she’d asked the city manager about adding such a rule immediately after the fire and was still waiting for a response nearly a week later.

She added that the Rogers Park Builders Group, what she described as a very responsible group of landlords in the Chicago neighborhood, has proposed that Chicago require landlords of multi-family residential buildings to read utility meters in their buildings at least every other month to make sure the tenants’ service hasn’t been cut off.

She said that in the case of the Marshfield fire, “the property owner, the janitor, the social worker and the kids’ tutor all knew they’d had no electricity since May.”

“Reporting needs to be required,” she said. “We require landlords to return security deposits; I don’t know why we couldn’t require that landlords inspect the meters.”

Paula Haynes, executive director of the city’s Human Relations Commission, said that when a lease makes landlords responsible for paying for utilities, the tenants generally quickly complain to the city about any shutoff.

But when tenants are required to pay utility costs and fail to do so, they generally try to hide that fact from the landlord and the city, because the lack of utility service would constitute a breach of their rental agreement.

The aldermen also reviewed changes staff proposed to the city’s residential landlord tenant ordinance.

As now written, the ordinance requires landlords to give tenants a 30-day period to stop behaving in ways that disturb their neighbors before seeking to have them evicted.

In the face of complaints that tenants would clean up their act just long enough for the 30 day period to run out, and then start disturbing the peace again, the staff proposed letting landlords terminate the lease on 30 days notice for such violations — eliminating the opportunity for the tenant to correct the behavior and stay.

Assistant Corporation Counsel Ellen Szymanski said that when the city has taken landlords to court for operating a nuisance building, the landlords at times have complained that the existing provision created a loophole that made it impossible for them to evict problem tenants.

But Alderman Edmund Moran said the new provision “puts a lot of discretion in the landlord’s hand and tips the balance too far against the tenant.”

Alderman Steve Bernstein said, “at the end of the day the court is going to make the decision anyway, but I think we should give the tenant a chance to cure their behavior.”

The aldermen decided to continue the discussion of the ordinance changes at a future meeting.

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