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An effort by the City to obtain greater control over what they term “problem landlords” through a rental unit licensing scheme – in the works since at least 2007 – fell flat in the face of withering criticism from hundreds of landlords and realtors at the Oct. 8 City Council meeting. The effort, which would replace the tamer landlord registration, now goes back to staff for reworking that could take months.

Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, said at  previous meeting that she introduced the concept of licensing five years earlier because the City’s current ordinances lacked the enforcement components necessary to force recalcitrant landlords to improve rental units. According to the proposed licensing law, the ability to rent out a unit is a privilege and not a right. That privilege can be revoked by the City.

It was the revocation concept, and the fines that accompany it, that caused the greatest outrage among the speakers Monday night. Literature distributed by the North Shore Barrington Realtors Association (NSBRA) decried fines that would amount to $14,000 for the first week of violations and $17,500 per week thereafter, should a landlord rent out an unlicensed unit to a tenant. State eviction law does not permit a landlord to immediately remove a tenant; therefore the revocation of a license for a unit in which a tenant resides would lead to a choice between facing the City fines and violating state law by evicting a tenant illegally.

Chambers was full to capacity, and Fire Chief Greg Klaiber, who was present to announce Fire Prevention Week, was forced to step in and make sure a passage to the door remained open and that chambers was not full past its maximum allowable number.

Overflow filled the hall outside of chambers. More people were present for a City Council meeting than some observers could remember since the Tower fight days.

Many came to the meeting at the urging of the Evanston Property Owners Association, an organization that promotes landlord rights. Others came after receiving the mailing from NSBRA.

Landlord after landlord took the lectern to express concern and outrage. Citizen comment only continued a barrage of email and phone communications that beset Council members before the meeting, with aldermen saying they had received 20 to 30 communications each.

The outcry was so great and persistent that before citizen comment even began, and before the item came up for discussion, that Fourth Ward Alderman Don Wilson said, “We have heard what people have to say” and added that he would make a motion to send the ordinance back to staff. The measure would not even reach a vote.

While the roughly 40 citizens who spoke were primarily opposed to the measure, a few spoke in favor of the changes. Many of the speakers were directly involved in the crafting of the ordinance through the Rental Licensing committee established and presided over by Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl.

The speakers in favor spoke about “problem properties” and the difficulty in enforcing ordinances that exist. “This would fill the gap, and it becomes something that can be enforced,” said resident Matt Daugherty. The City has long lamented its difficulty in enforcing property code and other minor violations, with a woeful collection rate on fines issued. Landlords have been simply ignoring violation notices.

But the voices in favor were swamped by the vociferous and passionate opposition.
 The Mayor’s committee was put together after the last effort to pass the licensing ordinance met a similar fate early in 2012. The committee met four times between March and August, spending hour after hour addressing the concerns of landlords, tenants, neighbors, the City and Northwestern University, said Ald. Wilson, who served on the committee.

The committee produced a product which two weeks earlier Ald. Wilson called “not perfect” and a “consensus” proposal. It was the best they could do given the differences on the committee, he said.

Those differences bested the consensus, with the committee members opposed to the measure speaking loudly against it.

The fate of the licensing ordinance appears to show the power of aggressive lobbying efforts. The Evanston Property Owners Association and the NSBRA mobilized supporters, and those supporters called, wrote, and spoke personally to each of the members of City Council. When it came time to vote, the opposition simply overwhelmed Council.

The ordinance now goes into what some call the legislative black hole. Having been sent back to staff for revision, its swift re-emergence seems improbable.