Panel tackles rental licensing hot potato


A committee appointed by the mayor after Evanston aldermen couldn't agree on a proposed apartment licensing ordinance started work Thursday evening.

The draft ordinance the committee is using as a starting point for its discussions calls for inspecting each of the estimated 10,000 dwelling units that would fall under the ordinance at least once every four years.

But the committee learned from one of its members, local landlord Albert Bowen, that rental properties paid for under the federal housing choice voucher program, also known as Section 8, already are inspected each year by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The city's community and economic development director, Steve Griffin, said he wasn't familiar with those inspections and would have check into whether they might meet the city's inspectional goals.

The proposed ordinance would charge landlords $26 per unit each year for a license. That would generate more than $250,000 a year, and would fund about half of the city's property standards inspectional staff.

Griffin insisted, "This is not about money, it's about safe occupancy for those tenants."

But Bowen said it appeared the city was just trying to raise extra money on the backs of landlords.

The draft ordinance would exempt owner-occupied two-flat properties from the license rules, on the theory that they tend to be well maintained.

But there was little indication at the meeting of what proportion of other properties in the city present the sort of life safety and housing standards problems city officials say the ordinance is designed to address.

Update 11 a.m.: In a phone interview this morning, Griffin said the city currently has two dozen properties that have open violation cases. He said he didn't have numbers readily available for how many properties might have violations over a longer period, like a year.

The committee was told not to deal with what may be the most controversial aspect of the city's rental housing regulatory scheme — the rule that prohibits more than three unrelated individuals from living in the same dwelling unit.

Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, a member of the licensing committee, said that issue was going to be addressed by the Plan Commission.

Committee member Lisa Pildes, a homeowner who also owns rental properties in the city, said the current rule occupancy rule appeared to be unfair, since some properties in town — including some directly across from the Civic Center on Ridge Avenue — have four bedroom apartments.

Wilson also suggested that it might be wise to just inspect a sampling of units in larger buildings.

It wouldn't make sense, he suggested, to inspect every unit in the high-rise Park Evanston building on Chicago Avenue downtown.

Committee members also floated a variety of other ideas — from assigning letter grades to buildings based on the inspection results to having the license duration be longer than one year if a building gets a high score on its initial inspection.

Homeowner Barbara Janes suggested that having frequent police calls to a property should be grounds for denying a rental license.

But Wilson said it would be unfair to penalize landlords for that. Wilson, an attorney, said, "I've represented a lot of landlords who've had a lot of problems getting a problem tenant out."

"If they don't pay rent, or if they break something, you can get them out," he said, but for police calls, unless it's a drug issue, the courts generally won't approve an eviction.

"Inspections aren't going to solve problems of noise and partying," he added.

The committee will hold its next meeting at 7 p.m. on April 19.

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