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The summer’s heat seems to have slowed things down even in Council chambers. When City Council met on July 25, every single item on the agenda passed on the consent agenda – unanimously and without discussion. Lurking in the background of the committee meetings, however, were several items that presage longer meetings in the future, including the resuscitated ordinance that seeks increased enforcement of the City’s apartment and rental unit zoning codes.

APW Committee Questions Use of CDBG Funds

The Administration and Public Works (APW) committee agreed to three park improvements. James Park’s sprinkler system improvements will go forward ($100,000), Twiggs Park will get a gateway and other aesthetic improvements (about $75,000 of federal money), and Fleetwood-Jourdain will get $30,000 (federal money) worth of new cabinets.

Only the Twiggs Park project generated any discussion at the APW Committee. Rather, Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, objected to the use of Community Development Block Grant funds, and particularly façade improvement funds, for the project. Assistant City Manager Marty Lyons said alternative funds could be available. Staff agreed to attempt to reimburse the CDBG fund, and Ald. Rainey suggested that the committee “approve this and see if City staff can do some fancy financial footwork” to return façade funds. The motion passed without objection.

Targeting the Shooting Range Project

A review of the City’s capital improvement projects (and the addition of more than $1 million to the budget from TIF and parking funds) brought to the Council floor the Project That Never Ends, the police shooting range. Ald. Rainey called for a complete investigation into the project, from start to finish. Mr. Lyons agreed to take on the task. More to come as this story unfolds.

NSP2 at P&D

At the Planning and Development Committee, two issues raised concerns – a NSP2 project and the resuscitated rental unit licensing scheme that proved overwhelmingly controversial in January.

The NSP2 project was the only item directly addressed. Brinshore Development will rehab a three-unit building at Emerson Street and Ashland Avenue at a total cost of more than $823,000. Ald. Rainey said she did not necessarily object to the project, but she did express concern over the total cost for the three-bedroom, one-bath units. She urged staff and Brinshore to find a way to at least add a second bathroom given the high cost of rehab. “We could buy a beautiful condo unit at that price,” she said.

The cost per unit runs close to $250,000 for units ranging from 1,300 to 1,500 square feet. Ald Rainey said she was “trying to send a message to Brinshore on this. … They should be finding projects that make economic sense rather than just spending money because it’s there.” Sara Flax, the City’s Housing and Grants administrator, said that she would see if there was a way to add a second bathroom to each unit.

Licensing Apartment Buildings

In January, the Daily Northwestern reported that the City planned to start enforcing an ordinance prohibiting more than three unrelated persons from living in any apartment. Mayor Tisdahl and other City officials vehemently denied this was the case at the time.

Rather, the City was researching a rental unit licensing ordinance to replace the current registration system. Staff brought the proposal to the P&D committee on July 25 night for discussion.

The new licensing ordinance, if passed, will exempt owner-occupied two-flats. All other landlords, however, including owner-occupied three flats, will have to pay a license fee of $26 per year per rental unit to the City and undergo inspections every four years. Those inspections could result in citations and a “compliance schedule,” a time limit within which to bring the unit into compliance. Citations could, in fact, issue for violation of the current ordinance prohibiting more than three unrelated persons from occupying any dwelling unit.

Such is not the intent of the slated ordinance, though it is a possible outcome. The true intent, said Jeff Murphy, the City’s manager of buildings and inspections, is two-fold.

The first is money. He estimated a licensing scheme would raise about $321,000 per year as opposed to the roughly $70,000 a year the current registration program brings in.

Mr. Murphy said the City spends about $600,000 per year inspecting properties, $425,000 of which is funded by a federal CDBG grant. The City wants to be less reliant on federal funding, Mr. Murphy said.

Second, said Mr. Murphy, the City needs a way to enforce its ordinances against bad landlords. The ability to revoke a rental license is a powerful tool, said Mr. Murphy, because it effectively cuts off an income stream. Without a license the landlord cannot collect rent.

Council members raised questions about the fate of tenants if licenses are revoked, noting that the proposed ordinance does not address that.

The interplay between the licensing scheme and the current landlord tenant ordinance and the City’s model lease has to be fleshed out.

Steve Griffin, the City’s Director of Community and Economic Development, said the ordinance would return with such questions answered in September.

At that point, of course, Northwestern students will be back on campus, and things could begin anew.