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DeKalb's Crime Free Housing program gets mixed reviews

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014 3:36 p.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014 3:08 p.m. CDT
Caption
(Monica Maschak - mmaschak@shawmedia.com)
Crime Free Housing Inspector Mike Stuckert notes code violations on DeKalb rental properties on Tuesday, February 25, 2014. Stuckert makes most of his inspections from the sidewalk.
Caption
(Monica Maschak - mmaschak@shawmedia.com)
Crime Free Housing Inspector Mike Stuckert notes a car without a wheel, which is a code violation, on a DeKalb rental property on Tuesday, February 25, 2014.

DeKALB – When Marilyn Yamber evicted a tenant over repeated domestic disturbances, she had information from the city of DeKalb’s Crime Free Housing Bureau to back her decision.

DeKalb landlords evicted 56 tenants from their properties last year after interactions with DeKalb’s Crime Free Housing Bureau, a program that has cost them $339,504 in fees.

Although the statistics from the first year of the Crime Free Housing Bureau have officials and landlords hopeful the program will clean up the city’s rental properties, some landlords still question if the program’s cost outweighs its value.

The DeKalb City Council established the Crime Free Housing Bureau in order to improve the 9,000 rental units in DeKalb. Rental units account for 56 percent of the city’s housing stock.

Under the Crime Free Housing ordinance, a landlord could face fines if their property is the site of three or more unlawful activities within a one-year period.

“We want them to be actively engaged in managing their properties,” coordinator Carl Leoni said. “It’s a business, it should be run professionally.”

So far, no landlords have been fined, Leoni said.

Leoni, who has been on board for about a year, reviews police calls from the night before and lets landlords know about any criminal activity reported at their property by calling them and sending a copy of the police report. Landlords then are responsible for following up on the criminal activity.

As part of the ordinance that created the bureau, all tenants sign a crime-free lease addendum that states they could face eviction if they commit a crime in or around their apartment.

Yamber said beyond her own careful screening, which includes a background check for all potential tenants, notification from Leoni and the addendum help her keep the 150 units she manages crime-free.

“I got a police report from Crime Free Housing, told the tenant it couldn’t happen again and got another police report a couple days later,” said Yamber, property manager with Yamber Real Estate. “I said, ‘That’s it.’ ”

Leoni notified landlords of 489 calls in 2013.

Those calls correlated with 56 evictions, 31 people being barred from properties and 18 tenants voluntarily moving out to avoid future problems, Leoni said.

Of the calls Leoni reviewed, 100 were for disorderly house complaints – loud parties or noise late at night. Another 97 were domestic battery and 45 were for possession of marijuana. The remainder ran the gamut from underage drinking to mob action.

“We want to move the bad guys out of town,” Leoni said. “All I care about is seeing the crime rate in DeKalb go down.”

Although the full crime statistics for DeKalb aren’t completed for Leoni to compare, he noted one apartment building on the city’s northwest side as a potential success story.

The apartments at 809 Edgebrook Drive generated 134 calls for police assistance in 2012. In 2013, those calls were cut in half.

“Once we get everyone on board with this, I think we will see crime go down across the board,” Leoni said.

Landlords pay program costs

The rules require every landlord to pay a $50 fee for each building they manage as well as $15.24 for each unit in a building with three units or more.

DeKalb Area Renters Association President Brad Rubeck questioned if the results justify the fees imposed on landlords.

“I’m not really sure how you do a fair evaluation,” Rubeck said. “The evictions don’t lead to people leaving DeKalb, they just get juggled around.”

He added that it’s difficult for a landlord to evict a tenant who hasn’t been convicted of a crime, and said tenants are more likely to be evicted for not paying rent rather than criminal activity.

“I applaud the efforts of the city and think communication with Carl [Leoni] has been fantastic, but it’s unfortunate that the fees are passed on to us landlords,” Rubeck said. “In the end, I think this was a way to generate money for the city and increase their workforce.”

Last fiscal year, the program brought in $158,482 in fees from landlords, but the expenditures were not broken down. In fiscal 2014, which started July 1, the fees have generated $181,022, while the department has spent $120,427.

City officials budgeted for $227,000 in revenue and $277,000 in expenditures, with the $50,000 shortfall to be covered with general fund revenues.

Finance Director Laura Pisarcik expects that the gap between revenues and expenditures will be close, although she cautioned the fees collected for the rest of the year will need to cover the salaries and benefits for a full staff.

Inspectors on sidewalks

Crime Free Housing consists of Leoni, a full-time secretary and three part-time inspectors. The department is on its second secretary after the first was let go for allegedly mentioning her position with the Crime Free Housing Bureau to get a rent reduction. Inspectors were hired in December.

Inspectors work staggered shifts, covering the day from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. They perform inspections by standing on the sidewalk and looking for problems such as garbage laying around, unsafe structures and uncleared parking lots. Reports are then filed in a database at the police department.

Since the inspectors started, they have also assisted the Code Enforcement Department with keeping emergency snow routes clear.

Inspector Mike Stuckert handles the northwest portion of the city, which generates the most police calls. He’s notified some landlords of issues – mainly improper garbage disposal – but hasn’t imposed any fines yet.

“Right now, most of our interactions with landlords are through letters and face-to-face,” Stuckert said. “We haven’t figured out what kind of citations we’re going to issue.”

The notifications have yielded one complaint, Leoni said, although he expects more as operations become steady.

“We will be ready to field more complaints because we are trying to make this a nice town,” Leoni said. “You can’t just leave your garbage laying out.”

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