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Akst: Safe, quality housing: Are we there yet?

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Newbies in the news business often hear that if everybody is happy, we aren’t doing our jobs right.

That mindset might comfort the DeKalb City Council, the DeKalb Area Renters Association, renters, and taxpayers after Monday’s City Council approval of imperfect, incomplete legislation.

After about two years of negotiating, the city OK’d ordinances designed to achieve better, safer rental housing.

Probably the most contentious features of those ordinances (as the Daily Chronicle reported Tuesday) are a plan to hire city staff to implement them, annual registration of landlords, and requiring tenants to forbear illegal activities in rented property.

Much of the above is touchy because of how it will be paid for.

To pay city staffers, the city will charge landlords $50 a building and $15.24 a rental unit for three or more units. (Seems simpler to round up to $15.25, but whatever.)

Estimated revenue from this part of the formula is $227,000. The city will contribute $57,000, for a total program budget of $284,000. The formula approved Monday is one of four funding scenarios the council, city manager’s office and DARA had batted around.

Landlords don’t like the funding formula because about 80 percent of the tab is on them.

Jim Morel, DARA president and a landlord, said, “It puts almost the whole cost of the program on the backs of rental properties.”

DARA/Morel wanted the city’s general revenue fund to pay for inspections.

“As we have said before, the benefits and enforcement of these ordinances should apply equally across the community,” he said. “Therefore, the cost should be applied evenly across the tax base.”

In my view, landlords shouldn’t squawk too loudly for three reasons:

1. Most renters are connected to Northern Illinois University (be they students or staff). NIU has no plans to relocate or close, so despite some added cost, the revenue stream for landlords should remain stable. Besides, it’s not like they’re saying, “Well, the cost of doing business is going up. Guess we’ll have to absorb that and move on.”

2. Landlords got something important. In July, Brad Rubeck, DARA’s information director, emailed me to illuminate the difference between registering landlords and licensing them. “The [Safe Quality Housing] Task Force and DeKalb Area Rental Association both agree that registration is important so that first responders can have contact information when incidents occur at rental properties,” his email said.

What DARA really opposed was City Manager Mark Biernacki’s desire (the way DARA saw it) to also license landlords, so that if a landlord committed numerous or egregious enough misdeeds, his/her legal ability to be a landlord could be yanked.

“DARA opposes licensing in its entirety,” Rubeck’s email said. “The actual need and benefit of licensing has not been demonstrated. … It will also adversely affect the values of DeKalb rental housing. Lower values lead to lower real estate tax base.”

The licensing provision has been dropped.

3. Rental life is not all cherries and ice cream. I’ve been around college students every working day for years. If even half the stories about landlords and rental housing I’ve heard are true, we have a long way to go before DeKalb really has safe, quality housing.

Despite Monday’s vote, the arrangement is not resolved because the parts of the ordinances both parties agree on create the most unease and are the least developed.

DARA and the city support mandatory crime-free lease addendums, crime-free training for landlords, a “three strikes” disorderly house provision, and a sidewalk exterior inspection program … but only ill-defined notions for what any of that means exist.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. Contact him at jasondakst@gmail.com.

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