DeKALB – Marcus Rodriguez’s first rental experience was a nightmare.
Rodriguez and two others had rented a house in a neighborhood east of Northern Illinois University, where Rodriguez was going to school. He said he didn’t know the real estate company had not been paying taxes on the house, and the state got involved.
“We found out we had a new landlord via Post-it note,” Rodriguez said.
As the home of a major university, DeKalb has a significant and active rental community, including many who move annually and have little experience renting. By City Manager Mark Biernacki’s estimation, 60 percent of the housing units are rental, and residents’ biggest complaint is the quality of rental stock.
City leaders – and various committees – have grappled for years with the issue of how to improve DeKalb’s rental environment. This led to aldermen voting last month to create a new housing bureau and passing a battery of ordinances designed to keep both tenants and landlords accountable.
The measures received mixed reviews from some local renters, but Hannah Clesceri, a Northern Illinois University junior, is excited about the changes they are expected to bring.
“It’s annoying that I will probably not get some of my security deposit back because of a few dings in my walls,” Clesceri said. “But [without the new measures] my neighbors will never get in trouble for the drugs they do, the parties they have and the other numerous rules and laws they have broken.”
Starting Thursday, all new leases in DeKalb include an attachment prohibiting the tenants from engaging in illegal activities in and around their apartments. Failure to comply can lead to eviction.
As for the landlords, they have to abide by a “three strikes” disorderly house provision. The city could prohibit a landlord from leasing a certain property if that property is the site of three or more unlawful activities within a one-year period.
After each of these instances, the landlords will meet with the police and city officials on how to rectify the situation. If a landlord reaches “strike three,” they could face fines and interior inspections of their property, in addition to being prohibited from renting in the city.
Starting in May, landlords also must register with the city annually and pay a fee. The fee is $50 a building, with buildings having three or more units paying an additional $15.24 a unit. These fees will help fund a new city housing bureau to enforce the ordinances.
Clesceri said she thinks the external inspections the city’s new inspectors will do will help save the landlords money and make tenants feel safer.
But Rodriguez, who studies Spanish and English at NIU, said he would feel awkward having to sign a separate agreement stating that he will not commit illegal activities in his home.
“It seems weird to agree to not do something in my own home,” Rodriguez said. “The fact that something is illegal – it’s already implied that you’re not going to do that in your home.”
Mixed tenant reviews
The handful of renters the Daily Chronicle interviewed this week generally had a good impression of DeKalb’s rental properties, but described struggles with specific landlords or with renting in general.
“I think my apartment’s really nice, especially for a place intended for college students,” said Caitlin Safiran, an NIU communications major. “And my friends’ apartments are pretty decent, too.”
But she’s found renting to be a sometimes-expensive learning experience after living in the dormitories.
“A lot of expenses sort of creep up that I hadn’t dealt with my first three years in the dorms,” she said.
David Lloyd moved out to DeKalb to enroll in NIU’s art program after getting his associate degree at Elgin Community College. He described bad experiences with two landlords, including one who gave him and his roommates “noise fees all the time, even if we weren’t home.”
When they disputed the fees, the landlord backed off, Lloyd said. Lloyd now lives in a boarding house on the east side of campus with nine other people. Lloyd said he enjoys the “mom-and-pop” feel his landlords have.
Despite bad experiences with previous landlords, Lloyd said rental housing in DeKalb is pretty good for students.
“For students it’s great because it’s so much cheaper than living in the suburbs or Chicago,” Lloyd said. “There are a lot of people you can find to live with that aren’t crazy.”
The ordinances, however, won’t fix graduating senior Megan Maloney’s issue. She is bothered her landlords can give her such little notice in showing her studio apartment she shares with her boyfriend to would-be renters.
“It feels like harassment almost,” Maloney said. “Most places [in other towns] don’t start doing showings until 30 to 60 days until the lease is up. It’s really frustrating having so many people come so early in the year when our lease doesn’t end till the end of July.”