Some local housing activists and landlords were critical on March 21 of a city subcommittee’s consideration of a licensing system for rental properties, questioning whether it would be an improvement over what is now in place.

Members of the Housing Subcommittee of the City Council’s Planning & Development Committee had set discussion around a rental licensing program, in that group’s study of ways to improve conditions at the city’s rental properties.

Evanston currently has a rental registration program, under which property owners pay a fee and submit a floor plan of the rental property, but participation is low.

A rental licensing program, however, would provide for an annual licensing fee and property inspection and would be tied more closely to property standards enforcement.

Carlis Sutton was one of the rental property owners at the meeting to question the move.

“There’s been no information presented in these meetings to influence or convince me that there will be any improvement for switching from registration to licensing,” he said. “It would not stop any of the problems that we’re having now. It would not stop the equitable-use and enforcement of violations.”

Tina Paden, like Sutton another longtime owner of rental property, pointed to the low number of property owners currently participating in the registration program.
At the meeting, staff reported that out of the 2,471 renewal invoices for the program sent out last month, 633 were returned.

“If you cannot even do the basics of getting people registered, how will you fairly get people licensed here in Evanston?’’ she asked officials.

She expressed concern to officials that a licensing program would target the landlords who are right now cooperating with the city on property issues – “and that you want to get rid of, such as myself.”

Strengthen registration instead: Schechter

Subcommittee members also received a letter from Gail Schechter, who for many years served as Executive Director of Open Communities, where rental licensing was an issue.

Schechter wrote in strong support of “strengthening the rental-registration protocol already in effect in Evanston and supplementing it with robust property standards enforcement. This will ensure that Evanston’s renters can live in decent, safe, and sanitary housing,” she wrote.

Schechter supported her view with findings from a recent Pew study of rental code enforcement in cities across the country.

The study, among other things, found that compliance with licensing requirements “is no more adhered to by property owners than compliance with registration. That is, very low,” she said, reading from her letter at the meeting.

“The most effective method of compliance is attaching an inspection requirement to the registration. ‘Proactive code enforcement’ – that is, routinizing inspections of registered properties – is essential,” she stressed.

“In Baltimore, rental properties with poor violation histories are subject to a $15-per-unit increase in registration fees, with the additional fee being directed to the city’s affordable-housing trust fund,” Schechter wrote.

“In Minneapolis, an owner of a one-unit property in poor condition pays $465 for a rental license, compared with $110 for a well-maintained property.

“Licensing is no panacea,” she argued.

“If Evanston shifts to licensing, it could add needless time and effort to ramp it up, when Evanston could be using those same resources on enforcement of its codes already on the books. This includes the Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance, which states, “The landlord shall maintain the premises in substantial compliance with the applicable codes of the city and shall promptly make any and all repairs necessary to fulfill this obligation.”‘

Schechter recommended that Evanston “add inspectors to its team, [as well as] rigorous enforcement, and low-cost loans to small landlords who need it, to improve the quality of Evanston’s rental stock.”

In discussion, though, subcommittee member Bobby Burns, the 5th Ward Council member, noted that the Pew study was primarily focused on the Philadelphia area and that most of the rental housing referred to was of a different nature than Evanston’s.

Understaffing, outdated software

Burns suggested that other deficiencies with the city’s property enforcement program that were discussed at the meeting will have to be addressed, whether the city sticks with its registration program or adds a licensing program.

Currently, the city’s rental registry consists of 339 single-family rental properties and 2,018 multifamily properties, according to a memo from City Housing & Grants Manager Sarah Flax, City Property Maintenance Supervisor Angelique Schnur, Neighborhood Planner Meagan Jones and consultant Amy Ahner.

In 2021, the city conducted 941 complaint inspections and responded to 1,252 complaint-related requests through 311, officials said in the memo.

Currently, the city’s database software does not provide the capacity needed to support a performance-based licensing or registration, they said, and does not interface with the computer platform the city uses for, as an example, building permits.

‘’The city currently has a complaint-based program model largely due to limitations due to staffing levels,” officials further reported. “This results in landlords that are compliant being at odds with those who do not register their rental properties.”

Officials reported that the city staffing model of one supervisor and five inspectors plus support staff has two unfilled positions.

“Based on the comparable communities, an additional two inspectors plus support staff would be needed at minimum for a proactive inspection model,” staff wrote.

Responded Burns, “No matter what we do, we’re going to have to figure out how to collect data [that officials are unable to do under current system].

“No matter what we do, we’ll have to figure out how to identify landlords who are in financial hardship and how to create programs that more directly help them.”

Council member Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, also a member of the subcommittee, noted that the group will still “have to solve the same problems with registration, as we look at licensing.”

“And so I think the conversation now is, ‘What steps would we need to make our registration system actually work?’” she said.

“Get more staff – both inspectors and in the office – get the software and data collection system up to snuff,” to improve the registration system that is now in place, Revelle said.

With licensing, she asked, “What happens, if someone’s license is removed, and they can’t rent their building? Then what happens to those tenants?”

But Burns argued that such a situation could arise whether registration or licensing is in place.

Licensing “is about the many steps before that” kind of situation arises, he said. The process requires that the landlord have knowledge about building matters and opens up the property to inspections.

‘No teeth’ to registration

Entering the discussion, Jane Evans, a resident of the 800 block of Gaffield Place and a member of the Mayor’s Task Force in 2012 that looked at such situations, told subcommittee members, “The problem is there’s no teeth to registration for absentee landlords who are not doing what they need to do.”

“The problem that we have is not owner-occupied properties,” she told the subcommittee. “The problem are the absentee landlords that we have in our community – [a problem] that we didn’t solve in 2012, and we’re not solving it now. And the inspectors, God love them, there’s just never enough inspectors to inspect. And we don’t have the budget in our city, quite frankly, to provide them.

“Licensing provides an opportunity for us to know who owns properties,” she said, “and also allows the landlord to have a little [stake] in the game.”

Chairing the meeting, Council member Clare Kelly, whose First Ward includes much of the rental housing around Northwestern University, noted that since her election to the council last April she has been involved on property issues “on a daily basis…
This is a huge issue,” she said.

Beyond licensing, she said she would like to see the subcommittee recommend “any measure to improve the integrity of our neighborhoods, to improve the quality of living for tenants.”

While licensing may still be up in the air, “I do know that we need to increase penalties, and they should be incremental,” Kelly said.

In addition, she said, “We should do our best to find out if the landlord owns five houses – then inspections get ramped up for all their homes. If they have a violation, then that would have an impact,” she said.

She suggested a disclosure law for the limited liability companies that are behind such properties could be a step the subcommittee could take at this time.

“When there’s disclosure, transparency improves so many things,” she said.

Burns, meanwhile, called for staff to draw up an “abbreviated vision for licensing,” which could be more incentive-based, and include Kelly’s idea of the LLC, to be discussed at the subcommittee’s next meeting.

He said the proposal could also be combined with the city’s registration program to see how that looks.

The subcommittee is due to present an update of its work at the Planning & Development’s April 11 meeting.

“I would like to see, ‘Here’s what we would like to see [with] registration, here is what we have to see with licensing,’” so both the subcommittee and community could react to it, Burns said.

Bob Seidenberg

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.