Over-occupancy discussions stall rental license decision

Susan Du

Evanston aldermen delayed voting on a rental licensing ordinance after a familiar topic stole the spotlight at Monday night’s planning and development committee meeting.

The proposed ordinance would require all landlords to apply for a rental license that would allow city officials to reevaluate housing standards. But aldermen ultimately agreed to wait for a more comprehensive ordinance review after attendees voiced concerns about the effectiveness of the licensing proposal.

After several community members characterized the ordinance as a means of over-occupancy enforcement, Ald. Delores Holmes (5th) reminded them to remain focused on the larger picture.

“It’s not just about students,” she said. “It’s about safe housing in city of Evanston for everyone. I just hope we all keep that in mind.”

Both public commenters and some aldermen agreed the ordinance’s intent is to translate some of the same expectations the city has for traditional businesses to rental units. Licensing proponents said the ordinance would lead to more efficient enfrocement of general building codes, while opponents claimed the proposal is just another way of maintaining the city’s notorious over-occupancy rule.

Lisa Pildes, Evanston resident and landlord, said she supported the proposed ordinance to require licensing of rental units.

However, she said evicting residents as a result of enforcing the over-occupancy rule is “poorly thought out,” and would not solve problems of damage and disruption in neighborhoods caused by Northwestern students.

“I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve woken up in the middle of the night because of party noise,” Pildes said. “As a landlord, I’ve also had the pleasure of meeting hundreds of smart, serious, sincere young people who are the future of our country.

Landlords who do not monitor (tenants’) anti-social behavior have a much greater impact on our neighborhood than whether there are three students or four in an apartment. After all, would you rather have four quiet students or three students who have 100 people over for a kegger in their backyard?”

Howard Handler, government affairs representative for the Illinois Association of Realtors, said licensing is not necessary and asked council members to meet with landlords to discuss over-occupancy issues.

“This is not the time to move forward on licensing,” Handler said. “This is the time to sit down. Let’s (put) our brains together and come up with some policies that work.”

Not all attendees of the meeting believed the debate revolved around over-occupancy, citing the possibility licensing would theoretically address many building code provisions, including fire safety and facilities maintenance.

Evanston resident Jane Evans agreed the discussion of the licensing issue should not become a public forum for over-occupancy debate. She said her main concern is to ensure the city has oversight over “unscrupulous landlords who believe it’s OK not to maintain their properties and that it’s OK to overlook unsafe living conditions.”

“This ordinance creates a system with teeth for addressing the many problems,” Evans said. “It will be an assurance to a renter that the licensed unit meets minimum standards. It will allow the city to finally have a current record of who truly owns a property and how to contact them and whomever they have managing the property locally.”

Council members’ primary concerns included the personnel and monetary resources necessary for enforcing building codes – and the possible eviction of tenants as a consequence.

Ald. Donald Wilson (4th) said it is important that local landlord and business communities actively engage in discussion of the building code ordinance and that they should have representation on the subcommittee charged with reviewing it.

Ald. Ann Rainey (8th) supported Wilson’s idea, agreeing that she “cannot conceive of evicting tenants.” Emphasizing the need for further discussion of building code violations besides over-occupancy, she recommended the mayor make appointments to the subcommittee with consultations from council members.

“I just think the landlords and the tenants ought to be involved in forming a solution,” Rainey said. “Let’s put something together so we can have a solution that will actually make sense.”

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