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Champaign County is home to tens of thousands of renters

CHAMPAIGN -- Rental property is big business in Champaign County.

With nearly 35,300 units, Champaign County has the highest percentage of occupied rental housing units among the state’s metropolitan counties, according to 2008 Census Bureau estimates.

Yet rental inspection programs are inconsistent across the county with stark differences between programs in the cities of Champaign and Urbana and, except for Rantoul, little to no oversight elsewhere.

 

The inspections are designed to ensure that rental properties which include non-owner occupied single-family houses, duplexes and apartment-style buildings comply with fire safety codes as well as city and national maintenance and building codes.

But interviews with city officials and a review of county and city records show that:

* Nearly 4,800 residential rental properties 47 percent of the county’s total rental properties are not subject to inspection. Just over 3,550 of those properties are in

* Champaign alone. The rest are in the county, which has no inspection program. When violations are discovered, landlords in Champaign and Urbana are routinely given months to make repairs.

* Landlords are rarely fined for violations, even after their cases are sent to the cities’ legal departments for further action.

Housing advocates say low-income tenants who make up more than half the renters in the county are especially vulnerable because they don’t always understand their legal rights or have the financial resources to resolve even basic housing problems such as bad plumbing, roof problems or lack of smoke detectors.

Esther Patt, director of the Champaign-Urbana Tenant Union, says the current systems are tilted in favor of landlords. Tenants have limited options to resolve housing violations, she said, while landlords are given several.

On the plus side, Patt said, many landlords make repairs as soon as a tenant reports a problem, and they work quickly to resolve code violations.

In many ways, though, “tenants are treated like second-class citizens,” she said. “It’s really as though [officials] believe that people who rent housing are not entitled to the blessings of liberty that homeowners consider their birthright.”

Andrew Timms, vice president of the Central Illinois Apartment Association and owner of Spectra ART Enterprises, a property management company, disagreed. Tenants have adequate outlets to resolve housing problems, he said.

“It’s simplifying the forces and issues [in regards to] providing safe housing to say it’s tilted one side or another,” Timms said.

Landlords are often stigmatized as villains, he said, but the “overwhelming majority” contribute positively to the community.

Champaign City Council member Tom Bruno thinks local government should have only a limited role in resolving tenant-landlord disputes. He said rental housing is a private transaction between consenting adults and should be treated the same as owner-occupied residences.

“Government doesn’t necessarily need to be the vehicle that steps into the relationship between consenting adults and babysits the tenant,” Bruno said. “How aggressive should the government be in playing a role in private contractual relationships, also known as a lease?”

There’s not a lot of good affordable housing’

College students and low-income residents make up the bulk of the rental population in Champaign-Urbana, Patt said.

The “overwhelming majority of tenants here are either poor or students, and these are not the people anyone cares about (because) they’re perceived as not voting,” she said.

An estimated 70,000 renters live in the county, and more than half of them live on less than $25,000 a year, according to 2008 Census data.

About 34,000 college students live off campus, according to data from the University of Illinois and the U.S. Census. There is no data to indicate exactly how many full-time students are renters.

Finding a place to live may be easier for students.

“Student rentals are very different than nonstudent rentals. The poor folks in this community are faced with a very different atmosphere,” said Thomas Betz, director of the University of Illinois Student Legal Services, which advises students on issues such as traffic tickets, misdemeanors and landlord-tenant problems.

Students tend to have more money and may have parents who inspect rental properties before they sign a lease, said Betz, who also is a member of the Champaign County board.

There’s now an oversupply of rental units, but most are high-end properties with high-end rent, Betz said. Students have a much better rental market to choose from and can be selective, he said.

For the low-income non-student tenant, it’s a “much rougher environment,” he said. “There’s not a lot of good affordable housing.”

‘Tenants who are afraid don’t complain’

Finding a rental house or apartment may be more difficult for low-income tenants, especially those who might have previous evictions and little money saved for a deposit.

“If you’ve got bad credit and you have evictions, especially if you have a criminal background, there are consequences to that,” said Sally Stocks Eissfeldt, owner of Property Management People and a board member of the Central Illinois Landlord Association.

Inspections may either help or hinder low-income tenants, said Betz, the director of the university Student Legal Services.

If there’s a water leak under your sink and you can live with it, he said, “you’re not going to call a housing inspector.”

“You’re not sure you want a housing inspection because if (they) close it down, where are you going to live?” Betz said.

Even tenants with no evictions or criminal records may find it difficult to secure a place because many landlords require tenants to have an income that is at least three times the rent, Patt said.

Half of the county’s tenants pay more than 30 percent of their household income to rent, according to 2008 Census data.

“When you finally find some place that will rent to you and it isn’t a total dump ... ‘(you) sign the lease and be grateful for it’ is the attitude a lot of people have,” Patt said.

When problems do arise, most low-income renters are reluctant to file a complaint because they fear the place might be condemned, she said.

Still others may not file a complaint if they are illegal immigrants, speak little to no English or have no other place to live if their unit is condemned, officials said.

“Tenants who are afraid don’t complain,” said Sue Salzman, Champaign’s longtime property maintenance supervisor who retired last fall.

In some cases, though, a tenant complaint is necessary to spur a landlord to make repairs, said John Roska, an attorney with Land of Lincoln, a legal aid service for low-income tenants.

“State law says as long as the situation is unsafe/uninhabitable, then the tenant can move out and hold the landlord liable,” he said.

The law allows a tenant to move to a hotel or comparable apartment until the situation is repaired. The landlord may be responsible for the costs, but the tenant may have to pay those costs up front – money many low-income renters do not have, Roska said.

“It’s a difficult proof process,” he said. “And tenants have to give landlords some kind of notice.”

Last May, more than 100 low-income tenants at Gateway Studios, 1505 N. Neil St., C., were forced out when the pay-by-the-week motel was condemned for lack of power and gas after its owners failed to pay more than $44,000 in utility bills.

Though many received their rent back, dozens of people did not have the money to find a new place. Cash-poor social service agencies were able to provide some emergency assistance, despite the drain on resources.

Both Urbana and Champaign city officials are now looking at ways to help tenants forced out of housing by condemnations and who have no other place to live.

Landlords face obstacles, too

Patt said enforcement remains an issue.

“Landlords know there (are) no consequences to not meeting the deadline (for repairs) and that is why a lot of them don’t do it,” she said.

If code violations are corrected within six months, Champaign-Urbana officials consider it a “victory,” Patt said, “because they are looking at buildings, not people.”

But for the tenant who has waited months for repairs, “that stinks,” Patt said.

Yet, city officials acknowledge that they prefer to work with landlords rather than fine them to resolve problems. Champaign City Council Marci Dodds said it’s important to remember that landlords and city inspectors are people, too.

“If a landlord shows good faith, the city will work with them,” she said.

Many landlords need that extra time because they are still recovering from the recent economic downturn, Timms said.

In the current economy, few landlords can make repairs just on the rents they collect, he said, and finding contractors to do the required work can take “weeks, sometimes months.”

“No two situations regarding building safety codes are going to be identical,” Timms said.

- Pam G. Dempsey and Lindsay Ignatowski

¨ Copyright 2011 CU-CitizenAccess.