Alicia De La Cruz helps immigrant families in Highland Park deal with unresponsive landlords more inclined to pocket security deposits than make repairs.
Since January, she’s received eight complaints about needed repairs and six about vanished security deposits. As a Mexican immigrant herself, De La Cruz sees it as a glimpse into a more complex problem tinged with racial discrimination and economics.
“Sometimes it’s a slumlord who’s not taking care of the house,” said De La Cruz, a Highland Park resident and immigrant leadership director for the nonprofit Open Communities. “And it’s not that ‘I want to live like this’ but ‘that’s the only option I have.'”
To address such precarious and unsafe living arrangements, the Highland Park City Council is discussing a new rental housing ordinance. The idea is to hold landlords more accountable for the conditions of their properties with a mandatory registration and inspection process — and steep fines for non-compliance. The council is expected to review a draft ordinance within a month or so.
The tricky part will be holding landlords accountable without displacing tenants who — whether through their landlords’ fault or their own — are living in unacceptable conditions and would need to move out.
“As I sit here right now, I don’t have an answer for that,” said Scott Moe, Highland Park’s building division manager. “I really don’t. … Unfortunately, enforcing the rules will inevitably displace some people. What we do as a city to ease the pain of that displacement could be of benefit, but for how long?”
Mayor Nancy Rotering, who first became aware of overcrowding in some rental homes while ringing doorbells during her mayoral campaign, agreed it would be a challenge.
“It’s a delicate balance between not displacing families and making sure families are safely housed,” Rotering said.
A few months ago, Highland Park Police Chief Paul Schafer shared photos of unsafe rental conditions with Rotering and the council, prompting more conversation. The photos showed makeshift bedrooms in basements with cooking stoves nearby, all in proximity to tangles of wires and stacks of tires.
“If you’re a landlord in this town, you really ought to know better,” Rotering said.
But the problems and the culpability can vary. In some cases, tenants are encouraged to make repairs on the homes but never compensated. Or they’re rented basements or garages to live in for reduced rates, a measure that some accept to just to stay in the community where they want to work and attend school, De La Cruz said.
In other situations, basements or rooms may be subletted out without the landlord’s knowledge, Moe said.
“That happens with some regularity,” Moe said.
Highland Park has a property maintenance code, as well as a housing code addendum, with rules on what’s acceptable. But the enforcement is the difficult part, he said. As it is now, inspections of rental dwellings are generally triggered by tenant complaints or by field observations of the building’s exterior.
But that’s an imperfect system, he said.
“A lot of times, tenants are apprehensive about filing complaints for fear of retribution,” Moe said.
In these situations, immigrants who may not speak English, know their rights or even have legal residency status are more vulnerable, De La Cruz said.
What Highland Park’s ordinance may look like is still coming into focus.
Annual inspections of a rental property’s exterior and interior would allow the city to be more proactive, less responsive, Moe said. Just making registration for landlords mandatory would make a huge difference for enforcement of city code, he said.
A registration fee could be in the range of $45 to $75, Rotering said. At a recent Committee of the Whole meeting, several city councilmen said they also wanted severe fines for non-compliance.