Mayor aims to fix landlord ordinance

By Jim Hagerty 
Contributor 

ROCKFORD — Rockford landlords are hoping for changes in an ordinance meant to improve rental properties, and the city’s new mayor is on board.

The 2013 law requires property owners to register their rentals with the city. Landlords are notified when police are called to a property on the registry, maintained by a third-party entity.

Some landlords have use of an email notification system as a way to keep tabs on minor incidents and violations. But critics say that is about all the current notification does.

Under the current setup, landlords are to be fined after a specific number of property violations. Those include failure to take out garbage, broken windows, long grass and noise.

To-date, landlords continue to receive emails but none has been fined, and no tenants have been evicted because state law prevents it. The only remedy for concerned owners is a county provision for speedy evictions but only if a felony directly involving a tenant happens on a landlord’s property.

Such was the case earlier this month in 1600 block of Camp Avenue, where two people were shot during a party at a rented house. A tenant in the Churchill’s Grove house hosted the party and was subject to a speedy eviction hearing through the Winnebago County courts.

Landlords are seeking the same outcomes for tenants who turn rentals into nuisance properties.

“The current system doesn’t work,” Paul Arena, past president of the Rockford Apartment Association (RAA) said.

But there may be some reprieve coming. Arena has forwarded a list of concerns to Mayor Tom McNamara.

“I gave the mayor a summary of what we have now and why it doesn’t work,” Arena said. “We haven’t talked about specifics yet.”

McNamara told The Times Tuesday he is reviewing the existing ordinance with hopes of making sensible changes.

“I will review (the concerns),” the mayor said, “ and continue to move forward and ordinance that benefits neighborhoods while not negatively affecting the good landlords we have.”

The email notification system also has some property owners apprehensive about reporting suspicious activity or crime. Landlords are unduly receiving notices when they give their property addresses to police.

In some cases, criminal activity has been committed on public property by unrelated parties outside a registered address. That activity has been reported to police and then found its way back to the registry list, reflecting on private property owners when their tenants were not involved in the incident.

The system used by the city, “EasyTracking Software,” was developed by a California-based firm, Dynamic Design Software. “Our mission is to support the various Police Departments and Agencies participating in the Crime Free Programs,” the company’s website touts. “The goal is to create safer neighborhoods while lowering the demands placed on law enforment. [sic]”

But some landlords have told The Times that having a system geared toward punishing only the property owners has left many scratching their heads as to how this ultimately aids law enforcement in the city.

Others have complained about the responsiveness of the system itself. Some landlords who share sites with other property owners have missed out on notices as they have only been sent to a primary account holder. When owners seek assistance for the portal’s interface (rentalregistry.rockfordil.gov), clicking the help button only takes them to a page asking, “Did you get Lost?”

Earlier iterations of the ordinance called for a tenant registration platform. The city was proposing that landlords furnish names of tenants, but that requirement was later removed.

Arena said he would be in favor of a registry for landlords to use in the screening of applicants. He said the system could also be used for tenants to avoid landlords with a history of violations or not maintaining their properties.

“It needs to change because it can’t just be punitive for landlords,” Arena said.

Arena was also pushing for mandatory hearings in front of a housing board. But he said the Larry Morrissey administration changed the language to make the hearings optional. The housing board was later dissolved.

State law dictates an amount of time for comment must pass before a dissolved committee such as the housing board can be revived. McNamara told The Times earlier this month that the city is hoping to reconvene that board in the coming weeks in accordance with Illinois law. He added that working with landlords like Arena was the only way to find a solution to this problem. R.

Managing Editor Shane Nicholson contributed to this report.

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