By Greg Trotter, Chicago Tribune
From the ashes of a December 2013 house fire that sent one man to the hospital in critical condition emerged Highland Park’s rental registration program, a formal attempt to hold landlords accountable for safe living conditions.
Now almost one year in, Highland Park’s fledgling program is working as intended and yielding positive results, officials say, by ensuring someone answers for building code violations should they be discovered.
“This doesn’t necessarily lead to us finding more code violations,” said Joel Fontane, the city’s director of community development. “What it does is, when code violations are found, we can resolve them more quickly – which benefits the neighbors, benefits the tenants, and makes sure the landlord or owner is abiding by the law.”
In Illinois, it’s up to each community to determine how to best keep their renters safe. There are no state laws requiring regular inspections or registration of landlords. Some, like Evanston, considered to be a model by some affordable housing advocates, have both. Highland Park went in another direction, adopting a registration program that depends on compliance and education to achieve its goals, Fontane said.
In the days following that 2013 fire, which revealed multiple building code violations — including people living in the basement – Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering had strong words. She called the fire “appalling” and said the new rental registration program would remove “the corporate veil” from landlords and allow the city to know “who answers to the guy in the hospital.”
Recently, Rotering called the program “a big step forward.”
“We’re having great compliance,” she said, “and there have been very few questions and complaints. Now we can turn our focus to education.”
For comparison, Evanston has more policies in place to hold landlords accountable. In addition to a rental registration program, implemented in 2008, the city also conducts regular inspections, said Carl Caneva, Evanston’s assistant director of health and human services.
Every three to five years, each of Evanston’s 4,000 or so buildings with rental units is inspected, Caneva said. The city also has protections against tenants being unfairly evicted if code violations are discovered.
Now, Evanston officials are considering ways to create incentives for compliance, possibly through public recognition that could boost a landlord’s profile, Caneva said.
“We want to give landlords value for doing the right thing,” he said.
Brendan Saunders, director of advocacy and organizing for Open Communities, said that while Evanston sets the standard, Highland Park still should be commended for its implementation of the rental registration program, which goes beyond the efforts of most towns.
“Highland Park is really unique in a good way,” Saunders said.
Some towns have nothing in place, he said. Other municipalities go overboard with regulation, which can lead to evictions despite good intentions, Saunders said.
“We don’t want anyone to live in substandard housing,” he said. “At the same time, these conditions exist and often times they exist to create an opportunity for families.”
Highland Park City Council members considered implementing regular inspections and landlord licensing last year, but ultimately settled on an approach they said was cheaper and less restrictive. The city sought to combine rental registration with an educational component.
In City Council discussions, some council members said they worried that more inspections could lead to more evictions. Regular inspections also mean increased administrative costs with no guaranteed results, Fontane said.
He said the majority of Highland Park landlords are reputable, though some may be new to the business and might not know their legal responsibilities.
“The philosophy here is that people are trying to do the right thing and abide by the law,” he said. “So let’s inform people what laws are and let them know what their obligations are.”
While providing a measure of accountability, Highland Park’s rental registration program also allows the city to send out educational materials to both landlords and tenant, Fontane said. That part of the program has real value, he said, because it allows the city to inform landlords and tenants about their rights and responsibilities.
As a result, the “I didn’t know” excuse is no longer valid.
“When there is a lack of compliance, there really is no excuse,” Fontane said.
As of April 1, 2014, all owners of rental homes in Highland Park were required to register emergency contact information for either the owner or a “property agent.”
To date, 301 owners of 659 rental units have registered, which Fontane estimates to be close to full compliance based on U.S. Census data. Only two owners have been fined for not registering, he said. A $30 annual per unit registration fee covers the cost of the program.
Alicia De La Cruz, Open Communities’ immigrant leadership director, provides housing advice to about 100 Highland Park families per year. Many of them are Latino immigrants. Often, families settle for undesirable living conditions to live near better schools and job opportunities, she said.
“It’s no secret there are slum landlords who rent houses in any condition and people who live in them feeling like there’s nothing they can do,” De La Cruz said.
Even before the December 2013 fire, Police Chief Paul Shafer told City Council members of unsafe rental conditions discovered by police in town, sharing photos then of makeshift bedrooms in basements with cooking stoves nearby, all in proximity to tangles of wires and stacks of tires.
Such discoveries are uncommon, Shafer said in a recent interview, but they do occur. Shafer likened the rental registration program to a driver’s license for landlords.
“It sets the bar out there for people to recognize,” Shafer said. “I think it’s a good thing.”