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From left, Council members Devon Reid, Eleanor Revelle and Clare Kelly at Thursday’s Planning and Development Housing Subcommittee meeting. Credit: Duncan Agnew

After spending several months discussing the pros and cons of a licensing system that requires property owners to register their rental units, the city’s Planning and Development Housing Subcommittee has referred the issue back to the main committee for further evaluation.

If the proposed licensing system is implemented, Evanston landlords would have to obtain a license to operate rental properties by going through an application and certification process.

But during the Thursday, June 23, evening subcommittee meeting, members held a broader conversation about potential strategies the city can use in the future to improve rental property code enforcement and inspections throughout the city.

Among other ideas suggested by subcommittee and audience members at the Morton Civic Center were a new program to ask tenants (rather than just landlords) to register the rental building they are living in via an online portal. This would help officials create a public list of all rental properties registered in the city and fill in the gaps if landlords have not registered their property.

“We’re trying to make the property inspections department more efficient so they have more time to focus on enforcement,” council member Devon Reid, 8th Ward, said at the meeting.

The city has struggled to keep up with property inspections in recent years because of COVID-19 and staffing shortages. Typically, Evanston officials try to conduct routine maintenance inspections of rental properties in alphabetical order by street name every three to five years, but the city only recently restarted those inspections after a long hiatus during the pandemic, according to Building and Inspection Services Manager Angelique Schnur.

Council member Clare Kelly, 1st Ward, also said developing a tiered approach to property inspections would be beneficial in order to prioritize key maintenance improvements (such as though that secure health and safety) over aesthetic issues.

“I think there are immediate steps that can be taken now, and I think we need to acknowledge that we can do a better job of enforcement now that is more equitable,” Kelly said. “We can’t lump everything together. We have to tier the type of violation.”

Still, creating a layered response system for city inspectors could cause challenges because what is considered major for some people could be considered minor for others, Schnur said. Plus, the city does need to respond when either the tenants or their neighbors make calls about possible property violations, according to committee members.

Moving forward, several members said they wanted the subcommittee to tackle the “three unrelated rule” that limits households and apartments to a maximum of three tenants who are not related to each other. Better defining this issues was the reason the housing subcommittee of the Planning and Development Committee was initially created, according to Reid, and the group is now set to begin conversations about the issue next month.

At the end of the meeting, though, local landlord Tina Paden said she wished Evanston landlords had more of a voice on city committees that decide housing policy.

“We don’t know anything that’s going on, and it’s bad communication, and I think a lot of these issues could be solved if there was better communication with the landlord,” Paden said. “People could be more compliant if we had more communication, or if we felt like you were really trying to hear what we have to say.”

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...

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