Committee debates proposed licensing law for Evanston landlords

Jia You and Jia You

A proposed ordinance debated in an Evanston committee Thursday would penalize Evanston landlords in violation of the city’s “brothel law.”

The proposal would require Evanston landlords to apply for a rental license before renting properties. These licenses would have stricter requirements than those of the existing registration process.

Aldermen voted in November to create the committee, called the Rental Unit Licensing Committee, and Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl appointed its members in January.

The committee consists of 14 members, including three aldermen, two landlords, five local homeowners, two Northwestern students, one tenant and one real estate broker.

Under the proposed ordinance, Evanston would have the right to inspect properties before issuing licenses to landlords, said Steve Griffin, the city’s community and economic development director.

Licenses would be issued on a unit-by-unit basis, Griffin said, and the city could deny licensing if a property had unresolved health, sanitation, building or zoning code violations.

Inspectors would look at each of Evanston’s estimated 10,000 renting units at least once every four years, Griffin said. If a landlord were found violating city codes and failed to correct the problems within the yet-to-be-determined compliance schedule, his or her license would be revoked.

Tisdahl told The Daily the committee is focused on safety standards of rental units, not the three-unrelated persons ordinance.

“We are going to have these meetings and come up with the landlord licensing ordinance so that we know what tools we have to enforce things,” Tisdahl said. “And then we are going to discuss the three-unrelated (rule).”

But the proposed law says landlords whose licenses were revoked because of over-occupancy or violation of the nuisance premises ordinance would not be able to obtain a new license until 180 days after the date of revocation.

An old zoning ordinance on the books in Evanston, commonly known as the “brothel law,” prohibits more than three unrelated people from living together in a single dwelling unit.

Landlords violating other safety and maintenance codes could obtain a new license once the city re-inspected the corrected unit, according to the proposed ordinance.

Weinberg senior Jared Cogan, an Associated Student Government community relations committee member who attended the meeting, said the 180-day waiting period was “targeted at students.”

Cogan attended the first meeting on behalf of the committee’s two student members, Communication junior Steven Monacelli and Weinberg junior Niabi Schmaltz. Both students were out of town due to Northwestern’s Spring Break.

Committee member Lisa Pildes also questioned the fairness of the prolonged waiting period for landlords found violating the so-called “brothel law.”

“What is it about over-occupancy as opposed to others?” asked Pildes, a landlord who rents properties near campus.

Committee member Jane Evans said it would be difficult for landlords to correct over-occupancy.

“Clearly in the middle of the winter people are not going to be asked to leave the property that they are renting,” Evans said.

Ald. Donald Wilson (4th) said he would be working separately to revise the three-unrelated rule.

Others questioned the appeals process for landlords found in violation of Evanston’s safety regulations.

Under the proposed ordinance, landlords whose licenses were revoked could appeal to City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz, who would make a final decision. Landlords dissatisfied with that decision could take it to court.

“You are vesting power in one person,” said Andrew Roberts, an executive member of the Evanston Property Owners Association. “There’s no community oversight.”

Roberts also questioned the efficiency of having a new ordinance. He said the owners association determined the city currently registers only about 60 percent of all Evanston rental units.

“A lot of what the city wants to do could be done without the licensing ordinance,” Roberts said. “The difficulty is that they are looking for more regulation, more ability to enforce on landlords, and they haven’t succeeded with the ordinance in place right now.”

Cogan said he is pleased the proposed response to landlords violating the three-unrelated rule will be renegotiated, and added he is optimistic about the committee’s future meetings.

“I think people on the committee are knowledgeable and they are genuinely looking for the best licensing ordinance for the city,” Cogan said. “As long as we can keep (the three-unrelated persons ordinance) out of this licensing ordinance, I think we’ll be in good shape.”

Griffin clarified in an email to The Daily on Monday that inspections could occur “prior to or in conjunction with the issuance of a rental licenses.”

“The issuance of a rental license is to ensure (properties) are safe and meet building, fire and zoning codes,” Griffin said in the email. “These rental inspections will focus on life safety and basic housing standards for the occupants of the property.”

Griffin also clarified that one of the intended charges of the committee was to ensure any adopted licensing laws would be implemented “with the goal of compliance and not punishment.”

The committee will hold its next meeting April 19.

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