Housing discussion
Senior Property Maintenance Inspector Angel Schnur, left, discusses housing policies with City Council members Eleanor Revelle (center) and Clare Kelly (right). (Photo by Duncan Agnew)

During a November 10 meeting at the Evanston Civic Center, the Planning and Development Housing Subcommittee held an at-times contentious debate about switching from rental registration to a licensing system for Evanston landlords. 

The city currently requires landlords to register their rental properties with the Evanston Housing Authority, providing basic details like name, address and contact information. Landlords who fail to register their rental house or apartment have a grace period to do so until the city can issue a fine for the violation. 

Angel Schnur, a Senior Property Maintenance Inspector for the city, said at the subcommittee meeting that switching to a licensing system would give Evanston more power to hold bad landlords accountable by suspending or revoking a license required to operate rental properties.

“We have some really bad landlords, and a rental registration doesn’t do anything to control that,” Schnur said. “It doesn’t protect the tenants when their names are not on the lease, it doesn’t protect the tenants when they’re living in squalor and it doesn’t protect the tenants when I’ve taken a landlord to court six, seven, eight times and they just pay the fine, that’s it, and they still can continue to rent subpar housing.”

But several community members present at the meeting balked at the idea of changing the current rental registration policies. Multiple residents said the city first needs to do a better job enforcing the existing property codes in a fair and equitable manner. 

Both Carlis Sutton and Tina Paden, longtime Evanston residents and landlords, argued that moving to a licensing requirement or even changing the current registration policies would not fix issues of enforcement that have long plagued the city. Instead of putting additional burdens on the landlords who comply with regulations, Evanston needs to figure out how to demand that bad actors change their practices, they said. 

“What you’re proposing here will make no difference in the way things are run in Evanston,” Sutton said. “The slumlords will still pay the check and go home, and the tenants will still be there without services. It will not cure the problems that we’re having now.”

Council members Devon Reid and Bobby Burns, who represent the Eighth and Fifth Wards, respectively, quickly endorsed a change from registration to licensing. Burns suggested that their two wards face far more issues with rental properties than anywhere else in Evanston, particularly concerning housing where off-campus Northwestern students reside. 

Burns also said he frequently gets calls from tenants saying they need to move because a landlord refuses to maintain proper living conditions at their properties. 

“We can remove those folks from the ability to rent housing in our city, and so I am happy to hear additional information, but my mindset is that we should move forward with licensing,” Reid said. 

Later in the meeting, Joe Roth from the Illinois Realtors Association posed a question that got widespread support from the public audience: Why not target the handful of bad landlords to fix the problem instead of putting a burden on others by trying to change the law entirely?

Reid, Burns and Schnur responded by arguing that requiring a license would not place any additional demands or constraints on landlords, but it would grant the city the ability to stop predatory landlords from violating property standards.

Paden and Sutton, though, expressed concern that double standards in the inspection of different properties could expose good-faith landlords to potential blowbacks or license suspensions. 

“I have a serial concern about enforcement and double standards,” Sutton said. “We’ve been a landlord in this community for 50 years, and we’ve never had a problem with tenants. Mainly [the problem] is from overpolicing of the city inspectors that harass us constantly in my community.”

Council member Clare Kelly, 1st Ward, who ran the meeting Wednesday night, acknowledged to community members that the debate between licensing and registration would not solve anything if double standards and discriminatory inspection practices are, in fact, commonplace.

Meanwhile, Gail Schechter, Executive Director of Housing Opportunities and Maintenance for the Elderly, said licensing often has a number of unintended consequences, such as inadvertently encouraging landlords to put added pressure on tenants to avoid risking a license suspension. 

“The question is, as you do your research on the unintended consequences: In trying to protect a renter, are you in fact actually going to put fear in them that they’ll lose their homes?” Schechter said. 

The meeting ended with council members agreeing to gather more research and information on housing policies across the country to make a more informed decision on the topic. The subcommittee next meets December 8.

Duncan Agnew

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

2 replies on “Licenses for landlords? City seeks to get tough on rental problems.”

  1. In reading this, I ask whether Evanston has put any thought into landlord “rental” of space as a B&B? Since this city likes to be at the forefront of issues (how’s the reparations going?), let US license & inspect for code conformance of those profit areas. Since I’m a member of the new ADA Advisory Group, I was told these places don’t fall under ADA control. Hotels/motels are ADA compliant, so why not the above? 2-1/2 years ago, my wife & I stayed in a bnb in LA, and it was a dump. Last December, 2 of my visiting daughters stayed in a dump on Hartrey, south of Dempster. It had a rickety stairway & there was a sewer smell emission twice a day. Accordingly, I 311’d a compliant, but no one has gotten back to me yet? Needless to say, it may be ok for my kids, but I’ll never stay in one again! FYI: Air bnb doesn’t take complaints kindly.

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