Evanston landlords, City Council members and housing staff gathered Wednesday night to discuss rental licensing. (Photo by Duncan Agnew)

At Wednesday night’s meeting of the Planning and Development Housing Subcommittee, City Council members discussed the possibility of installing a licensing requirement for Evanston landlords. 

The city currently uses a rental registration system that requires landlords to register all of their rental properties every year. A licensing program, though, would require landlords to go through training to get a license to run rental properties. 

Council members Bobby Burns, 5th Ward, and Devon Reid, 8th Ward, showed strong support for a move to licensing, arguing that the system would improve the enforcement of property maintenance requirements and force more landlords into compliance with local codes.

Evanston’s housing staff members, who helped prepare a memo for the subcommittee on the rental systems used in similar cities around the country, said the current registration system is not effectively keeping landlords in line. 

Angel Schnur, the Property Maintenance Supervisor for the city, added that Evanston has three property inspectors on staff right now and two vacancies waiting to be filled, which means that “we are constantly chasing the complaints” filed by tenants about different properties.

In the past, the city has conducted routine inspections on every rental property at least once every other year, but the staff now only has time to respond to complaints. Schnur said that because of staff vacancies, unregistered landlords and a handful of problem landlords, the city does not have the bandwidth for proactive property maintenance inspections. 

During the public comment section of Wednesday’s meeting, however, several local landlords spoke out in favor of reforming the current system rather than overhauling it to create a licensing requirement.

Carlis Sutton, a lifelong Evanston resident who has rented out properties for decades, called licensing a “draconic” measure that would give the city power to take away the income of landlords by revoking their rental licenses. 

Some residents and property owners also suggested that registration can work just as well as licensing if the city fixes the system, and that reforming the existing process would not create unnecessary problems for the landlords who operate in good faith. 

“We think the efforts are better focused on fixing the registration system, identifying where the problems are, where the complaints are coming from and creating targeted solutions to address those problems as they arise, rather than a blanket authoritarian approach to all of our housing providers in the community,” said Joe Roth, Governmental Affairs Director for Illinois Realtors. “Licensing is, after all, a threat to their livelihoods.”

Schnur and Sarah Flax, the city’s Housing and Grants Manager, said their research in preparation for the meeting revealed that most communities with rental licensing systems very rarely, if ever, revoke a landlord’s license. That fact shows how licensing forces landlords to proactively address property maintenance violations to avoid losing their licenses, according to Schnur and Flax. 

“As a whole, we’re spending a lot of time trying to track down landlords. We’re trying to email them, and we’re not getting responses,” Burns said. “What it seems like the [memo from housing staff] is telling us is that because it’s a license, because the education component is mandatory, we see better compliance.” 

But Council member Clare Kelly, 1st Ward, noted that the research also shows that stiffer fines and penalties for failing to register rental properties still work to increase landlord compliance with local laws and regulations.

The city needs to recognize that there have been enforcement issues with rental registration, Kelly said, and in order to make any progress, a mechanism has to be in place to evaluate the housing department’s performance and effectiveness. 

Adding to Kelly’s critiques, Flax and Burns emphasized that the current data collection and management system needs an overhaul so that property inspectors can more easily and efficiently contact landlords and identify repeat offenders. 

Lisa Pildes, the owner and Manager of Beautiful Evanston Housing, said at the meeting that she worried licensing is “a solution in search of a problem.” Pildes served on a mayor’s committee in 2012 that looked into the same debate of licensing versus registration, and she remembered finding only a handful of properties at the time that would have benefited from landlord licensing. 

“It feels to me like a lot of the problem is that there’s just not enough resources to do the enforcement,” said Sue Loellbach, Manager of Advocacy for Connections for the Homeless. “So I’d really love to see us focus on what we have in place already and see how we can enforce that.” 

Due to a scheduling conflict with another committee meeting, the subcommittee members voted to pause the discussion and to return for the remainder of the debate at 5 p.m. on March 16.

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...