In a college town, where rental housing is a significant economic activity and where the community is grappling with perceptions of substandard conditions and unsafe neighborhoods, few local issues are bigger than making sure renters have access to safe, quality housing.
So I applaud the DeKalb Safe/Quality Housing Task Force, but I’ve had uneasy feelings about its direction, and judging by voluminous online comments after the most recent Daily Chronicle story, I’m not alone.
Two issues seem most disquieting at the moment.
One is the proposal (favored by both the task force and the city) of registering landlords with the city via a $3-a-unit licensing fee.
City Manager Mark Biernacki sees registration as a compelling mechanism because of the threat of license revocation if landlords fail to provide and maintain reputable housing. He favors an annual paid registration process, while the task force has recommended that the $3-a-unit fee be one-time.
I’m generally OK with this idea. Having rented several apartments in several college towns and, more significantly, having heard dozens of anecdotes about what Northern Illinois University students contend with (no, I don’t believe everything I hear), I think the rental housing climate in DeKalb is worse than what task force member Herb Rubin – who is skeptical of the registration proposal – thinks.
Mayor Kris Povlsen said the city required landlords to register 10 years ago, but the effort failed because of a lack of resources. Brian Morsch, a task force member with the DeKalb Area Rental Association, said about 435 properties are on the years-old list. Both Povlsen and Morsch say it wasn’t landlords’ fault the registration process failed.
Lack of resources is a recurring theme. If so, the landlord registry could be a real collaboration between the city and NIU that would send a more convincing message of collegiality than decorative planters (which, to be fair, are lovely).
A major research university shouldn’t be strained to contribute personnel and programming to groom the old list, update it, set up a simple database and then hand it over to the city to maintain.
That even sounds like an upper-division class project.
The second, more troubling, hot-button issue is a proposed ordinance allowing the possible eviction of renters who might (or might not) be breaking laws.
The task force recommends an ordinance that would require tenants to agree not to commit certain illegal activities under threat of eviction (it’s unclear to me whether anyone has developed this list of activities).
The red flag is that tenants don’t have to be convicted to be evicted.
DeKalb Police Chief Eugene Lowery said an eviction does not require a criminal conviction.
“It’s a really civil process; state-statute controlled and governed by the courts,” he told the Chronicle, “hence the preponderance of the evidence beyond a reasonable doubt.”
I’m confident he’s legally correct. I’m also confident that the bulk of who we’re talking about here – college students – are easily intimidated, naļve young adults who make mistakes and have substantially fewer resources than the city or landlords.
I worry this provision will produce scenarios in which one renter is doing something illegal (maybe), the landlord catches on … and evicts the innocent roommate. Legal redress will be lost in the multiple crises of going to class, holding down jobs and scrambling to find new digs.
Also, Section 10.11 of the DeKalb Municipal Code prohibits “confessions of judgments,” which the “DeKalb Tenant’s Handbook” defines as a “provision that allows the landlord to enter a judgment against tenant without a court hearing/proceeding of any kind.”
• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. You can reach him at email@example.com.