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Housing rules on DeKalb's agenda

Myron Myers bought this property on Harrison Street in the mid-1990s in hopes of preserving it and currently rents it out. Myers believes that landlords should be licensed and registered with the city, one of the issues coming up Wednesday at the DeKalb City Council's public hearing.
Myron Myers bought this property on Harrison Street in the mid-1990s in hopes of preserving it and currently rents it out. Myers believes that landlords should be licensed and registered with the city, one of the issues coming up Wednesday at the DeKalb City Council's public hearing.

DeKALB – Myron Myers says his neighborhood in the historic district in the city's Fifth Ward has deteriorated since he moved there in 1993.

Myers, a professor of voice and diction at Northern Illinois University's School of Music, said there used to be a balance between homeowners and rental housing in the area. But now, most of the residents are renting the single-family homes.

Myers says there has been an increase in drug and gang activity, in addition to large alcohol-fueled parties.

"A lot of people who come here go to parties and consume copious amounts of alcohol," Myers said. "They are not all students, I must add. A lot of people who come here to do these kinds of things – they are employed, but they're not students. The lack of regulations sort of allows them to get away with that."

Myers believes these issues could be fixed if the DeKalb City Council required all landlords, regardless of how many units they are renting out, to be licensed by the city. Inspections, too, should be increased.

"Licensing, with it, carries some responsibilities," Myers said. "If they're not in compliance on a certain level, a certain number of landlords will lose their license to operate, and I think that's fair. If they're not in compliance with safe and quality housing, then they shouldn't be operating."

Not everyone agrees.

Dan McClure, a realtor at Century 21 Elsner Realty in DeKalb who rents property near Myers' home in the historic district, disagrees with the idea that landlords should be held responsible for the behavior of their tenants.

"That's crazy," McClure said. "They want to take our rights, and they can fine you into bankruptcy if your tenants act poorly. That's ridiculous. You can't make somebody responsible for the actions of their tenants."

The philosophical divide between McClure and Myers is something the public will be able to weigh in on at a special City Council meeting Wednesday. Since June, aldermen and city officials have been weighing recommendations from the Safe & Quality Housing Task Force, a group that includes landlords, renters and other community members.

Other recommendations from the task force include adding a crime-free lease provision to all leases in the city, making it clear to tenants that illegal activity could be grounds for eviction.

There are four proposed laws before the council, but it's the issue of licensing that has garnered the most attention and debate from aldermen, city officials, and landlords. City Manager Mark Biernacki has previously described it as being the linchpin of all the city's efforts to improve the quality of its housing stock.

The task force recommended requiring all landlords to register their contact information and pay a one-time fee of $3 for every rental unit they own.

The city staff disagreed. They recommended every landlord pay an annual registration fee, regardless of how many units they rented out, and be licensed by the city.

McClure said he believes a licensing program could be abused by the government in the future. Although he does not mind firefighters coming through his various properties to inspect them, McClure disagrees with the notion that expanding inspections would help.

"It just seems like a tremendous invasion of privacy of the tenant to me," McClure said. "I don't understand why they want to get involved with this."

The task force's recommendations also touched upon inspections as well. They recommended keeping rental property inspections on a complaint basis. City staff also recommended the same thing, but they expressed a desire to add inspections from public sidewalks. However, this would cost more money to implement.

The city council also appears split on the issue. Fifth Ward Alderman Ronald Naylor and Sixth Ward Alderman David Baker both are landlords, but they are on opposite sides of the licensing issue.

An opponent of licensing, Baker said he does not understand its purpose.

"The only thing that licensing would create is a cash flow, a money stream, to the city that would turn into a negative cash flow," Baker said, predicting that increased inspections could be a huge expense for the city.

The prospect of a landlord losing a license could be disastrous, Baker added. The property owner would have an empty building, and every tenant would have to find a new place to live. Licensing is not a practical idea in the near term, Baker said.

Naylor disagrees. He says that in order for the city to ensure compliance to its codes, it needs to have some sort of ultimate penalty.

Naylor said he believes the vast majority of landlords do comply with city codes, and that the noncompliant ones are repeat offenders.

The task force also recommended setting up a system for punishing landlords if their properties are the sites of chronic nuisances and disturbances.

Naylor said he hopes a lot of people come out to the public hearing Wednesday, as he feels that housing issues are very important as they affect everyone.

If the last special meeting on housing was any indication, Naylor shouldn't have to worry about attendance. The council chambers were packed with onlookers, although no one spoke.

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