by Bob Seidenberg
Evanston officials are proposing a two-tier system for the city’s rental properties, placing buildings where the most problems are occurring into their own category and subjecting them to greater attention and consequences.
Grant Farrar, the city’s corporation counsel, outlined some of the changes at the Jan. 19 Evanston City Council meeting. City staff is planning to bring a formal ordinance to the council for discussion and review at the Feb. 9 council meeting.
The proposed ordinance, named the Neighborhood Integrity Ordinance, lists a wider list of offenses that define a building as a nuisance. The offenses include first degree murder, kidnapping, any offense involving a deadly weapons, possession, manufacture or delivery of controlled substances, prostitution, noise issues, fire and building code violations, as well as new categories, such as dangerous dogs, disturbing the peace, resisting or interfering with police.
Under the original ordinance, properties could be deemed a nuisance if two or more offenses punishable by imprisonment for one year or more occurred within a six month period there; or if in a six month period the building was the site of two or more offenses which were state or federal misdemeanors or violation of city code.
However, city staff, in their review of the ordinance, found it “overly broad” and said it “encompasses offenses which do not substantively relate to preventing criminal activity,” Farrar and City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said in a memo.
City officials began leveraging the original nuisance property ordinance last fall in response to recent criminal activity, including a police standoff where two men had hidden themselves in a building, where they were not tenants, after police responded to gunshots in the area.
Officials subsequently launched an aggressive campaign highlighting the problem of nuisance buildings, releasing a list of properties responsible for the greatest amount of police activity and calls.
The city already has a residential registration program for owners of rental properties, which make up about 8 percent of the city’s total housing stock, officials said.
Using that as a basis, staff would use a grading system to determine whether a property is “Tier 1” or “Tier 2,” officials said.
Properties deemed problematic, or Tier 2, constitute about 15 percent of the current rental properties, staff estimated. Buildings in that category would pay a higher rental registration fee, under the proposed ordinance. The buildings would also be inspected on at least a once-a-year basis compared to once every four years for Tier 1 (good standing) properties, officials proposed.
Owners or operators of Tier 2 properties would also be required to attend a Neighborhood Integrity and Community Responsiveness course as one of the conditions of the ordinance, officials said.
The course would cover such areas as crime prevention, security assessments, interaction with police, screening of tenants, and recognizing gang and drug activity.
Tier 2 properties will be evaluated on a periodic basis to determine whether they can be reclassified as a Tier 1, but that would only happen “after sustained improvements are documented,” officials said in their memo.
Officials consulted with the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, American Civil Liberties Union and Open Communities, drawing up the new ordinance, Farrar told aldermen.
The stress is one of corrective action, working with building owners, operators and landlords, rather than taking than seeking property forfeiture and “devoting hours and hours and days and days of staff time trying to take over property,'” he said.
Where compliance can’t be achieved, the city still has enforcement mechanisms such as the city-run Administrative Adjudication department and Cook County Circuit Court in Skokie to seek remedies, he said.
In discussion at the Jan. 19 meeting, some aldermen commented on the resources involved in the new plan and the scope of the proposed ordinance.
“Some of the issues I’ve had to deal with in my ward, I wish I had something with a little more teeth.” said Ald. Peter Braithwaite, 2nd.
He said he’s had to deal with someone operating an illegal auto-repair shop and the situation really doesn’t fall under any of the categories proposed in the new ordinance.
“Some neighbors see it as an environmental issue, other neighbors see it as a crime issue because of the people coming around soliciting business,” he said.
In another example, he noted that the incident that lead to the police standoff in a building in the 1800 block of Lake Street, in his ward, turned into “a police block party,” with police and residents gathered on the scene and news helicopters flying overhead.
Braithwaite said Evanston police Chief Richard Eddington told him the city’s cost in response to the incident was “probably about $10,000.”
“I do think that properties that we are constantly receiving calls—there needs to be way of documenting it and putting a cost to it,” he said.
Ald. Don Wilson, 4th, raised concern about the city committing to what he called a “massive undertaking.”
Ald. Delores Holmes, 5th, asked Farrar whether student residences, which have been a big generator of calls in her ward, would also receive attention under the new ordinance.
Farrar assured her that would definitely be the case.
“What is commonly thought of as students being students — that’s a very incorrect reading of all the potentialities in situations, such as where there is consumption of alcohol, where there is boisterous conduct, where there are physical altercations. Those are very serious safety issues,” he said.