‘No panacea’ licensing program to solve rental property problems: Activist

Some local housing activists and landlords criticized a city subcommittee’s March 21 review of a licensing system for rental properties, questioning whether it would be an improvement over what which is currently in place.

Members of the Housing Sub-Committee of the City Council‘s Planning and Development Committee had been discussing a tenancy licensing scheme as part of the group’s study of ways to improve conditions in rental properties in the city.

Evanston currently has a rental registration program, under which landlords pay a fee and submit a floor plan of the rental property, but uptake is low.

A rental license program, however, would provide for annual license fees and property inspection and would be more closely tied to the enforcement of property standards.

Carlis Sutton was one of the rental property owners at the meeting to question the move.

“No information was presented at these meetings to influence me or convince me that there will be an improvement to move from registration to licensing,” he said. “It wouldn’t stop any of the problems we have right now. This would not preclude fair use and enforcement violations.

Tina Paden, like Sutton, another longtime rental property owner, pointed to the low number of landlords currently participating in the registration program.
At the meeting, staff reported that of the 2,471 program renewal invoices sent out last month, 633 were returned.

“If you can’t even do the basics of registering people, how are you going to get people allowed here in Evanston?” she asked officials.

She told officials her concern that a licensing program would target landlords who are currently cooperating with the city on property issues — “and who you want to get rid of, like me.”

Reinforce recording instead: Schechter

Subcommittee members also received a letter from Gail Schechter, who for many years served as executive director of Open Communities, where rental licenses were an issue.

Schechter wrote in support of “strengthening the tenancy registration protocol already in place in Evanston and supplementing it with rigorous enforcement of property standards. This will ensure that Evanston tenants can live in decent, safe and sanitary accommodation,” she wrote.

Schechter backed up his view with findings from a recent Pew study on rental code enforcement in cities across the country.

The study, among other things, found that compliance with permit requirements “is no more respected by landowners than compliance with registration. It’s very low,” she said as she read her letter at the meeting.

“The most effective method of compliance is to attach an inspection requirement to registration. “Proactive code enforcement,” meaning routine inspection of registered properties, is essential,” she stressed.

“In Baltimore, rental properties with poor violation records are subject to a $15 per unit increase in listing fees, with the additional fees going to the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund,” Schechter wrote.

“In Minneapolis, an owner of a one-unit property in poor condition pays $465 for a rental permit, compared to $110 for a well-maintained property.

“Licensing is not a panacea,” she argued.

“If Evanston moves into licensing, it could add unnecessary time and effort to speed it up, when Evanston could use those same resources for enforcement of its codes already on the books. This includes the Residential Landlords and Tenants Ordinance, which states: “The landlord shall maintain the premises in substantial compliance with applicable city codes and shall promptly make any repairs necessary to fulfill this obligation.”

Schechter recommended that Evanston “add inspectors to his team, [as well as] rigorous enforcement and low-cost loans to small owners who need them, to improve the quality of Evanston’s rental stock.

During the discussion, however, Bobby Burns, a member of the subcommittee and a member of the 5th Ward Council, noted that the Pew study was primarily focused on the Philadelphia area and that most of the rental housing mentioned was of a different nature from that of Evanston.

Outdated and understaffed software

Burns suggested that other shortcomings of the city’s property enforcement program that were discussed at the meeting will need to be addressed, whether the city sticks with its registration program or adds a licensing program. .

Currently, the city’s rental registry consists of 339 single-family rental properties and 2,018 multi-family properties, according to a memo from Sarah Flax, city housing and subsidies manager, Angelique Schnur, maintenance supervisor of City Properties, Meagan Jones, Neighborhood Planner and Amy Ahner, Consultant.

In 2021, the city conducted 941 complaint inspections and responded to 1,252 complaint-related inquiries through 311, officials said in the memo.

Currently, the city’s database software does not provide the capability to support performance-based licensing or registration, they said, and does not interface with the computing platform that the city ​​uses for, for example, building permits.

“The city currently has a complaints-based program model largely due to limitations due to staffing levels,” officials further reported. “The result is that landlords who comply are at odds with those who don’t register their rental properties.”

Officials reported that the city’s staffing model of one supervisor and five inspectors plus support staff has two unfilled positions.

“Based on comparable communities, two additional inspectors plus support staff would be required at a minimum for a proactive inspection model,” the staff wrote.

Burns replied, “No matter what we do, we’ll have to figure out how to collect data [that officials are unable to do under current system].

“No matter what we do, we’ll have to figure out how to identify owners who are struggling financially and how to create programs that help them more directly.”

Board member Eleanor Revelle, 7th District, also a member of the subcommittee, noted that the band will still have to “work through the same registration issues, as we look at licensing.”

“And so I think the conversation now is, ‘What steps would we need to make our recording system actually work? “, She said.

“Get more staff – both inspectors and in the office – update the software and the data collection system,” to improve the registration system that is now in place, Revelle said.

With the licenses, she asked, “What happens if someone’s license is revoked and they can’t rent out their building? So what happens to these tenants? »

But Burns argued that such a situation could arise regardless of whether registration or licensing is in place.

Licensing “is about the many steps before” this kind of situation arises, he said. The process requires the owner to have knowledge of construction issues and opens the property for inspections.

‘No bite’ inscription

Entering the discussion, Jane Evans, a resident of the 800 block of Gaffield Place and a member of the mayor’s task force in 2012 which looked at such situations, told members of the subcommittee: “The problem is that there is no There’s no bite to recording absentee owners who aren’t doing what they need to do.

“The problem we have is not owner-occupied properties,” she told the subcommittee. “The problem is the absentee landlords we have in our community – [a problem] that we didn’t solve in 2012, and we’re not solving it now. And inspectors, God loves them, there are never enough inspectors to inspect. And we don’t have the budget in our city, quite frankly, to provide them.

“Licensing gives us the opportunity to know who owns the properties,” she said, “and also allows the owner to have a bit [stake] in the game.”

Chairing the meeting, council member Clare Kelly, whose first ward includes much of the rental housing around Northwestern University, noted that since her election to the council last April, she has been involved in property issues. “daily…
It’s a huge problem,” she said.

Beyond licensing, she said she would like to see the subcommittee recommend “any measure to improve the integrity of our neighborhoods, to improve the quality of life for tenants.”

Although the licenses are still pending, “I know we need to increase the penalties, and they should be progressive,” Kelly said.

Also, she said, “we should do our best to find out if the owner owns five houses – then inspections are ramping up for all of their houses. If they have a breach, it would have an impact,” she said.

She suggested that a disclosure law for the LLCs that are behind these properties might be a step the subcommittee could take at this time.

“When there is disclosure, transparency makes so many things better,” she said.

Burns, meanwhile, called on staff to come up with an “abbreviated vision for licensing,” which could be more incentive-based and include Kelly’s idea of ​​the LLC, which will be discussed at the next deputy meeting. committee.

He said the proposal could also be combined with the city’s listing program to see what it looks like.

The subcommittee is due to present an update of its work at the April 11 planning and development meeting.

“I’d like to see, ‘Here’s what we’d like to see [with] registration, here’s what we need to do with licensing,” so the subcommittee and the community can respond, Burns said.

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