Rockford landlords seek improved property ordinance

By Jim Hagerty
and Shane Nicholson 
Managing Editor

ROCKFORD — A city ordinance passed in 2013 aimed at improving rental property management is doing nothing to correct systemic problems.

“It’s a mess,” says Paul Arena, past president of the Rockford Apartment Association (RAA), a group that helped put the law in place.

The current ordinance requires landlords to register their buildings with the city, allowing property owners to receive email notifications when police are called to the property.

That, critics say, is the extent of its positive service to the community. Arena said the law doesn’t give landlords tools to help rectify problems.

“It doesn’t solve anything,” Arena said. “The ordinance was supposed to improve properties and help tenants and landlords and improve the city.”

But Arena and other area landlords say the ordinance has done little to those ends.

“Sure, we get the notifications, but that’s all. Nothing gets rectified.”

Even when a property is considered a nuisance, landlords must still follow standard Illinois eviction laws unless there’s a serious crime committed on the property.

Arena, when he was president of the RAA, worked with the Mayor Larry Morrissey administration to change that by seeking ways on the local level to go to court and obtain immediate evictions if tenants turn their properties into nuisances.

However, Arena said the closest they came was by way of an expedited eviction process in the Winnebago County courts. Such cases required proof a crime was committed on their property. Although the expedited system alleviates some red tape, it only applies to provable crime, not other violations.

Mayor Tom McNamara said concerns over the ordinance were brought to him during his campaign. He set out to quickly address issues property owners were experiencing.

“We reached out to the landlords’ association and to Paul and some other property owners in the city,” McNamara said Tuesday. “We’re at a point where we’re waiting for (the landlords) to return with their thoughts, and we’re getting staff input throughout.”

As it stands, the Rockford housing ordinance considers a property a nuisance if police are called three times in a four-month period, or if there are a series of infractions.

Downtown property owner Kyle Bevers was on the receiving end of two “Rental Registry Incident Notification” reports in less than a week earlier this year. Both incidents related to restaurants which share the block with his personal residence and his registered rental properties.

“I called in to report damage to city property,” Bevers said. “Someone leaving a bar tipped over a planter on the sidewalk; we saw it on our video cameras. They ask me, ‘What’s the address?’ and I give my address, now I get one of these notices.”

Bevers says the current system can punish landlords and tenants trying to participate in their community. An incident just Monday under the address of his property was for “Theft under $300.” But the report provides no context for the person receiving it.

“I can only assume this happened in one of the businesses downstairs on the block,” Bevers said. “In that case, it’s not a tenant problem; it’s a problem against my tenant.”

Rental Registry Incident Notification reports, such as the one above, are doing nothing to help landlords or the city root out problem tenants, charge critics. Provided

Other code violations include failure to take out trash, rodent infestation and public drinking, things Arena says landlords should be allowed to rectify through swift eviction.

Mediation between the city, landlords and tenants was considered early in the process but that language was later removed. Presently, all responsibility when tenants do not comply falls on the landlord, something property owners and the city agree needs to change.

Since the ordinance was the product of a committee no longer functioning inside City Hall, critics say oversight of its impact has been lacking. And they charge that there has been no one to address ongoing concerns.

McNamara told The Times his administration has taken steps to get that committee back up and running.

“We’ve got to get the right people in the room and get that moving again,” he said. “We’ll have the police involved and (city administrator) Todd Cagnoni, who was there when this ordinance was first passed.”

The RAA would like the city to reveal the names of code violators. Doing so, Arena said, would allow landlords to better screen prospective tenants, and allow tenants to avoid landlords with histories of not taking care of their properties.

Bevers agrees that further information is needed as part of the reporting notification process.

“I would like to know what the incident actually was and who initiated the phone call,” he says. “Right now, I get an email with the time and what the incident was called by the police and a handful of links to follow at the bottom. But none of these links give you any real information.”

Bevers adds that without that information, there is no way for responsible landlords to follow up with tenants or to address concerns over specific properties.

“If I had a property with six or eight units in it, I wouldn’t know who it was or what happened. The fact we live here means we have some knowledge that most landlords would not. But this ordinance – I can’t see that it’s doing what it was supposed to do.”

Arena expresses frustration over wasted efforts to find an ordinance that works for all invested parties.

“I feel all that work we did with the Morrissey administration was lost,” he lamented. “Anytime (city officials) didn’t want to do something we got the excuse that it was because we didn’t have home rule.”

Arena and McNamara say they are set to continue talks as they pursue a solution to this problem plaguing the city’s landlords. McNamara says he expects that process to reach its conclusion in the coming weeks. R.

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