Two months ago, City officials unveiled a list of ­­­11 properties they said were associated with criminal activities or constituted a public nuisance. They said they would like to address the “problem properties” as “one part and only one part of the answer to violence in our community.”

At the Jan. 19 City Council meeting, Grant Farrar, the City’s Corporation Counsel, outlined City officials’ thinking about two possible ordinances to deal with properties that constitute a public nuisance and to license buildings in which residential units are rented. He said the City’s police, health, and legal departments have been reviewing the issue for the past year, and the legal department has gathered input from the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Open Communities.

Draft ordinances will be presented at Council’s Feb. 8 meeting.

The Proposed Neighborhood Integrity Ordinance

A new ordinance called the “Neighborhood Integrity Ordinance” will replace the City’s current nuisance premises regulations, said Mr. Farrar. The ordinance will define what constitutes a “nuisance,” and will provide a mechanism to help ensure that property owners and managers are required to remove nuisances from their properties.

Under the proposal, a property will be deemed a “nuisance” if two or more criminal offenses, identified below, result in an arrest in any 12-month period at the property:

• First degree murder;

• Kidnapping;

• Any offense involving deadly

weapons;

• Possession, manufacture or sale of a

controlled substance;

• Possessing dogs in excess of the limit;

• Possessing dangerous dogs;

• Disturbing the peace;

• Resisting or interfering with police;

• Unlawful noise;

• Prostitution;

• Violating the City’s fire code, and

overcrowding;

• Violating the City’s property

maintenance code.

Under the proposed definition, it appears there must be “proof of criminal activity,” in addition to simply relying on proof of arrests.

If a property is deemed a nuisance, the City will actively work with the property owner or manager to remove and prevent the nuisance. If the owner or manager fails to do so, the City may seek fines and other relief in an administrative adjudication process or in the Circuit Court.

The list of criminal offenses included in the definition of “nuisance” does not include “domestic violence calls,” said Mr. Farrar. He said these calls are excluded to avoid unintentional consequences falling on victims of domestic violence. A recent State law prohibits municipalities from penalizing landlords or tenants for emergency calls based on domestic violence or an individual’s disability. He added that the proposed ordinance will comply with the requirements of the federal fair housing laws, which protect people with disabilities and other classes of people.

In addition, the proposed ordinance will not contain a forfeiture provision, said Mr. Farrar. He said the goal is to work with the owners and managers to stop the nuisance, not take their property, which would be a time-consuming and expensive process.

Ald. Anne Rainey focused on the language requiring that the criminal offenses occur “at the premises.” She suggested that the language be broader to encompass activities that occurred off the site.

Alderman Peter Braithwaite noted that the list of offenses did not include zoning violations such as operating an auto repair shop at their home, or hoarding.

Building on Ald. Braithwaite’s comments, Alderman Delores Holmes said some people in her ward operate landscaping businesses at their homes, bringing in trucks and hauling. “I think it’s important to take a look at that.”

Mr. Farrar said he would take a look at zoning violations.

Ald. Holmes also raised an issue that neighborhood peace may be disturbed by activities other than shootings, such as student parties. “If we get four calls a day over the weekend about parties at student housing, that’s as big a nuisance as it is if someone’s having a fight in another property. I don’t want people to get it confused because a nuisance is a nuisance.”

Mr. Farrar said, “We absolutely agree.” He said there are potential consequences if alcohol is consumed, there is boisterous conduct, physical altercations, or people jumping around, which can raise “very serious safety issues.” He added, “If a premises is perpetrating or perpetuating nuisances on a continuing scale, that impacts neighborhood integrity no matter what it is.”

Alderman Brian Miller, 9th ward, said he wanted a clear definition of the term “arrest,” and to be sure that cannabis was not within the definition of “controlled substance.”

Licensing Rental Buildings

Mr. Farrar said the City currently requires owners of rental properties to register their properties with the City and to pay a registration fee. He said staff recommends that the City revise its registration ordinance to require that rental properties be licensed, which he said will further reduce criminal activity and improve safety. Under the proposal, a housing unit could not be rented unless it was licensed.

Under the proposal, staff will register and license a “compliant” rental property as a Tier I Rental Property, and a “non-compliant” rental property will be registered as a Tier II Rental Property. “This is an approach that’s followed by many, many jurisdictions,” he said. He estimated that about 15% of the rental buildings in the City will fall into the Tier II category.

Mr. Farrar said the City will use a grading system to determine whether a property is a Tier I or Tier II property. He said the decision will be made based “upon the inspection results, the history of the premise related to inspections and service calls, and other equally applied rational criteria.” The criteria that will be used to make that determination were not provided. Tier II properties will be evaluated on a periodic basis to determine if they can be moved to the Tier I category.

Staff will focus more on the Tier II properties, said Mr. Farrar. Tier I buildings would be inspected every four years, Tier II every year. In addition, staff will be more actively involved with Tier II landlords to resolve issues and bring the buildings into compliance, and Tier II landlords will be required to attend a training course. If necessary, the City may seek to enforce compliance through administrative adjudications or through an action in court. Conceptually, fines may be imposed, and a license may be suspended or revoked

Mr. Farrar said the licensing fee for Tier II properties will be higher than Tier I properties to help defer the cost of more intense interventions for Tier II properties. Under a draft schedule, the licensing fee for an apartment building with 2-4 units would be $30 if in the Tier I category, and $100 if in Tier II. The licensing fee for an apartment building with more than 100 units would be $500 if in the Tier I category, and $2,500 if in Tier II.

Ald. Rainey asked how Tier I is different from the current registration process. Mr. Farrar said the fee to license would be the same as the fee to register. He added there may be a difference in the inspection schedule, “but essentially it will be much the same.”

Ald. Rainey asked why the City should license buildings that would fall in the Tier I category. Mr. Farrar said that imposing a licensing requirement on all buildings is needed to “level the field of expectations.”

Ald. Holmes said all landlords are currently required to register their properties “and that’s not happening. … The City has got to have a handle on how many rental properties we have in the City of Evanston.” She added it would be unfair to require just Tier II properties to be licensed. 

Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, said he thought inspecting properties as part of the licensing ordinance would be a “massive undertaking.” Assuming that 85% of 1,700 properties had to be inspected, it would mean 1,445 apartment buildings.

“If we’re devoting those kind of resources to inspecting and dealing with properties that aren’t a problem, then we’re not devoting the resources to the actual problem,” he said.

He suggested the ordinance just deal with Tier II properties.

Mr. Farrar said he will bring draft ordinances to City Council on Feb. 8.