Rental unit committee finalizes licensing ordinance proposal

Jia You

Members of Evanston’s Rental Unit Licensing Committee finalized a proposed ordinance to license the city’s rental units Thursday night. They also repealed a clause requiring the city to have a panel presiding over license revocation hearings.

The committee was tasked with reviewing the proposed ordinance, which would allow the city to inspect rental units for compliance with safety codes, including the “brothel law,” before issuing licenses to the units.

The committee voted 6-1 Thursday to drop a clause stipulating a panel, not the city manager, would have the final say on license revocations. Committee members voted to add the clause during a May 17 meeting, citing concerns with placing decision-making power with a single person.

“It does give me a bit of pause that the person who’s making the choice is a one-man band,” said Evanston resident and committee member Jane Evans during the May 17 meeting.

Assistant city attorney Ken Cox said during Thursday’s meeting, the city code stipulated all hearings go before the city manager, who currently has the final say on matters such as business license and health department license applications.

Cox said a landlord found violating safety codes would go through 10 to 12 steps before the city could revoke his or her license. After the city notifies a landlord of violations in his or her rental units, it would issue the landlord a schedule of compliance. At the end of the schedule, the city would re-inspect the unit and if the violation continues, the city would hold a hearing to determine if the landlord had failed to fulfill his or her responsibilities. After that, the director of the Community and Economic Development Department would determine if the violation justifies revocation. A revocation hearing would then be held.

“So long as the landlord corrects the underlying violation at any point before the (revocation) hearing, revocation would not happen,” Cox said.

Evans then suggested dropping the original clause regarding the establishment of a panel.

“As I started to hear about the process we go through, I changed my mind,” Evans said in an interview after the meeting. “I thought that the city manager is the person who makes all those decisions for other licenses and that he could make one with this too.”

Evanston resident and committee member Barbara Janes also questioned whether landlords could evict tenants if their license were revoked, especially in cases where the tenants’ behaviors were the cause of revocation.

Ald. Donald Wilson (4th) said landlords are legally barred from evicting tenants in such situations, but they could specify in the lease contract that tenants would be evicted if they violate the city’s safety codes, such as the nuisance premise ordinance.

He added that the proposed ordinance does not require the landlord to succeed in correcting the violation.

“As long as the landlord does the thing that the ordinance tells you to do…the landlord will not get that punishment,” Wilson said.

But Howard Handler, government affairs director of the Illinois Association of Realtors, added in an interview after the meeting that the landlords “are getting their hands tied” under the proposed ordinance because they would be fined for having tenants without a license, even though they could not evict the tenants.

“They’re trying to have it both ways,” Handler said. “They can say all they want that they don’t want people evicted, but if you continue to operate…you’re in violation of the ordinance.”

At the end of Thursday’s meeting, the committee voted 4-3 to forward the draft ordinance to the Planning and Development Committee. Wilson said a staff report highlighting controversial issues will accompany the draft.

“(The draft ordinance) is a product that I’m sure nobody is totally happy with,” Wilson said. “Sometimes people say the best way to kill an idea is a consensus.”

Evanston resident and committee member Lisa Pildes voted against forwarding the draft. She argued the city does not need a new licensing program.

“The city needs to enforce the laws they have on the books now,” Pildes said. “They need to put their house in order as far as registration goes.”

Evanston currently registers all rental units.

Communication senior Steven Monacelli, one of two Northwestern students on the committee, attended Thursday’s meeting. Monacelli said in an interview after the meeting he was satisfied with the draft ordinance.

“The good thing is that things of concern were still removed; the 180-day punishment specifically for overoccupancy was removed,” he said. “We’ll have increasing enforcement power for the city in terms of negligent landlords. Student tenants will benefit in that situation.”

The Planning and Development Committee will review the draft ordinance before putting it to vote at the Evanston City Council.

Monacelli said several city officials had told him the city would begin discussions on the three-unrelated rule after passing the ordinance on licensing rental units.