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Inspection programs differ vastly in Champaign, Urbana

CHAMPAIGN -- Champaign and Urbana both have rental housing inspection programs, but the two are markedly different.

The inspections are designed to ensure that a rental property complies with fire safety codes as well as city and national maintenance and building codes. The codes cover such issues as lack of proper heating or hot water, roof or ceiling leaks, flooding, mold, plumbing problems, broken or nonworking windows and roach or rodent infestations. 

Urbana systematically inspects inside all rental units, while Champaign systematically inspects only the common areas of apartment buildings with three or more units. As a result, more than 3,500 single-family rentals and duplexes in Champaign are not subjected to routine inspections.

Champaign will conduct an interior inspection only if a tenant files a complaint.

Champaign receives about 200 tenant complaints annually. Urbana receives about 50 – a difference that Urbana officials attribute to their more aggressive inspection policy.

Champaign condemns between 20 and 30 properties a year, while Urbana has condemned fewer than a dozen properties in the past five years.

A property may be deemed uninhabitable, and therefore condemned, if an inspector finds any code violations that threaten the life and safety of the tenant. If a landlord repairs the problem, the condemnation could be lifted.

Officials in both cities say they prefer to work with landlords to make repairs or improvements rather than seek fines or take them to court.

“The point is not to get the fines,” Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing said. “Fines are there to spur people on to get the job done. It’s not meant to be a revenue generating thing.”

In Champaign, legal action is filed when “we are not getting anywhere, when we’ve tried everything,” said Sue Salzman, who retired in October as the city’s property maintenance supervisor. “We get a lot more done cooperating with people.”

In some cases, landlords have been given months and sometimes years to make repairs without being fined.

Local rental inspection programs are important in maintaining the value of individual properties as well as the quality of neighborhoods, said Andrew Timms, vice president of the Central Illinois Apartment Association and owner of Spectra ART Enterprises, a property management company.

He draws a sharp distinction between Champaign’s program and Urbana’s.

Common-area inspection programs like Champaign’s are fair, Timms said, but he described Urbana’s interior inspection program as “extreme” and some inspectors as “creeps with badges.”
“Interior inspections op-pose the Fourth Amendment,” he said. Landlords “respect the right to privacy of their clients.”

Routine inspections can miss safety hazards

Champaign inspectors do not enter any individual apartments during a routine common-areas inspection, but they can identify potential violations in electrical or mechanical rooms, boiler rooms and circuit breaker boxes.

Champaign officials acknowledge that violations such as missing smoke and carbon monoxide detectors that are required in or near bedrooms may be easily missed.

“They probably wouldn’t be caught unless they get a complaint,” Champaign Mayor Jerry Schweighart said when asked whether his city’s program effectively identified safety hazards.

Salzman said she believes the city’s inspection system works well with “responsible landlords.”

“It’s getting us in buildings we’ve never been in, letting us identify some problems,” she said.

But she also said the system is not adequate. Interior inspections, she said, would help identify hazards that otherwise would not be discovered.

“We’re not being able to see plumbing hazards, electrical hazards, smoke detectors all important aspects of inspections (we’re) not able to do,” she said.

‘We don’t go after a fine’

Unless a tenant’s life or safety is at risk, a landlord in Champaign is given up to 30 days to correct violations. If violations continue, the landlord can be given another 30 days to make the required repairs or improvements.

Each time, though, landlords can apply for an extension and propose their own timeline for correcting violations a process that can add months to the inspection cycle.

Conditions that pose a threat to a tenant’s life or safety such as no heat in the winter, a deteriorating roof, mold and rodent infestation or lack of smoke detectors – are exceptions.

When these violations are found, the landlord is given three to seven days to correct them or else the unit may be condemned. Landlords can also face between $150 and $750 in fines per day per violation.

Even so, Champaign officials emphasize that they prefer to negotiate rather than take landlords to court.

The Champaign neighborhood services department which oversees housing inspections meets weekly to discuss problem cases. On average, there are 30 ongoing housing cases.
When a case is finally sent to the legal department, landlords may be granted even more time to make repairs.

At any time during the process, a landlord can reach an agreement with the city to make repairs and thus avoid paying any penalties, Assistant City Attorney Laura Hall said.

 “You fine people to compel them to do what you want them to do,” Hall said.

Once an agreement is reached after the case goes to court, then there’s the “power of the court to enforce that order,” she said.

A landlord who does not comply with an order to make repairs may face several penalties for contempt of court, including daily fines or jail time, Hall said.

Still, the landlord has an option to purge the contempt by making the repairs within a set amount of time.

Complications such as foreclosures or bankruptcies frequently arise, stalling resolution to some housing cases, Hall said.

And sometimes landlords get a building permit to make repairs, which allows six more months to complete the work.

“Generally, we don’t go after a fine,” Hall said. “If we fine them $2,000 for a roof, then that’s $2,000 they can’t use to fix the roof. You want the fine, and you want what’s causing the fine to be fixed.”

Once a case ends up in the city’s legal department, a 15-day notice is sent to the landlord that the city plans to file a complaint in court.

The landlord is then given time which varies, depending on the violation to respond.

The city can file for a default judgment if there’s no response. If a judgment is issued, another 30 days may be given before the order to demolish is granted.

In the past two years, Champaign has sought fines against only one set of landlords Bernard and Eduardo Ramos. The city was awarded more than $15,000 in fines in May when a judge found the father-and-son landlord team guilty of violating city orders and renting two condemned apartments at 209 W. Green St.

The Ramoses have appealed the fine. Their appeal was denied on Dec. 16.

‘If they’re working with us, they’re good’

Like Champaign, Urbana initially allows a landlord up to 30 days to make repairs, then another 14 days if repairs aren’t completed.

At this point, “if they’re working with us, they’re good,” Urbana Housing Inspector Clay Baier said.

“If they are working with us and have (been) working on the problem, we’re going to work with them if there are general maintenance issues,” he said. “We’re seeing a lot of compliance. Other than a few bad apples, most landlords do a fairly good job of coming into compliance.”

If a landlord does not respond or comply, the case is forwarded to the legal department, where yet another notice is sent and another 30 days granted for response.

This differs from Urbana’s inspection practices in 2000, when a landlord was given up to 90 days to comply before the case was sent to the city’s legal department.

The 2007 revisions “really did make a big difference ... and landlords knew it, too,” Baier said.

Now, though provided there are no life and safety hazards a violation may go uncorrected for up to two months.

Urbana’s inspection department sends fewer than a dozen cases to its legal office a year, Baier said.

Of the 787 ordinance violation cases filed in Urbana in 2008 and 2009, 31 were for housing violations, according to the city’s legal department.

Just two of those were property code violations filed in 2008. Urbana was awarded $5,800 in fines plus court costs, according to city records.

Baier cites Urbana’s interior inspections as a reason for the city’s low number of tenant complaints.

“We might be ahead of the game,” compared to Champaign’s greater frequency of complaints, he said. “Honestly, I think the (interior) inspections are a big factor.”

Champaign City Council members, however, defend their city’s rental inspection program.

“I’m comfortable with the balance that Champaign has shown,” city council member Tom Bruno said. “Just because some cities have more aggressive programs does not convince me we should, nor do I think it was a mistake to develop some inspection program.”

Council member Michael LaDue agreed.
“The system works well for all the parties who have a stake in improving compliance with the code,” he said.

- Pamela G. Dempsey and Lindsay Ignatowski

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