Cities differ in handling apartment inspections

URBANA — Marvin Drennan had two days to move out of his roach-infested apartment. The balcony on the outside of his complex was in danger of collapsing, the city said, and he had to go.

"If you gotta go, you gotta go," said Drennan, who is retired now.

His landlord set him up in a new place across the street. He likes it better. There's a bit more counter space in the kitchen and the living room is a little bigger. He thinks the bedroom might be a bit smaller, but he's not really sure.

He can use the three-pronged wall outlets in this new apartment. He was told not to mess with them at the old place. They were just too unsafe.

"At least we haven't got the roaches like we had over there," Drennan said.

He has only killed a few since he moved to a new place at 2018 Fletcher St. in Urbana two weeks ago. He suspects he brought them over from his old apartment at 1304 Silver St., which is right across the street. You can shake out your clothes all you want, he said, but you're bound to bring some roaches with you.

Yeah, he likes it better here. His landlord owns both units, and Drennan told him he's not going back.

Drennan was one of 18 people moved to a new apartment when city inspectors condemned three buildings on Silver Street last month.

They found that the balconies and stairwells on the exterior of those buildings were structurally unsafe — a city code violation that might not have been caught in Champaign, said Champaign-Urbana Tenant Union Director Esther Patt, and she thinks Urbana didn't do enough for residents who were relocated on an emergency basis.

The landlord, Paul Zerrouki, disagrees with the city's assessment. He said his own engineer said the balconies and stairwells were fine, but he is going to rebuild them anyway as soon as he gets a building permit from the city.

He said the Urbana officials have not been "tender" with him at all.

"All I want is to be treated fairly as a businessman in Urbana," Zerrouki said.

He said the condemnation was not due to negligence, and he has been doing everything he can to make sure residents do not end up without a home. He transferred most of them to his other apartment buildings.

"We are strong, we are financially strong, sound," Zerrouki said. "And we're doing everything we can to get residents back."

The condemnation and emergency relocation are relatively rare in both cities, but not taken lightly by city officials. Still, the situation  highlights differences in housing inspections depending on where you live in Champaign County, Patt said.

Urbana, for example, has a rental registration and systematic inspection program. In addition to housing inspectors responding to tenant complaints, every rental unit in Urbana is inspected on a rotating basis, whether or not a resident files a complaint.

Under that program, 7,041 units are registered in 593 buildings, said Building Safety Manager John Schneider. Another 1,800 units are contained in duplexes or converted single-family homes.

"It's a significant number, and we have two housing inspectors," Schneider said.

That is how they caught the structural deficiencies in the three buildings on Silver Street, and that is what prompted the emergency relocation of 18 residents.

That is a significant difference between Champaign and Urbana, Patt said. If you rent an apartment in Urbana, she said, you can rest assured that it has been inspected relatively recently.

"If a landlord builds an apartment in the basement of a building without a building permit, Urbana is going to catch it," Patt said. "It might take a few years, but they'll catch it."

Schneider said the systematic inspection program allows inspectors to find problems, even if the tenant doesn't know anything is wrong.

"It just allows us to make sure that, at least every inspection cycle, the properties are brought to the current standard," Schneider said.

Champaign, on the other hand, only inspects common areas on a rotating basis: Exit corridors, stairwells, utility service, and maintenance and laundry rooms, for example. Champaign inspectors only go into the rental unit itself when the tenant asks for an inspection.

The problem with that, Patt said, is that a lot of tenants will never complain.

"Some people are afraid, and some people don't know about the complaint process," Patt said. "And some people don't know that there is something wrong."

That means city code violations will inevitably go undiscovered, she said.

"There are more unsafe apartments that are not up to code in Champaign than in Urbana," she said.

Champaign Code Compliance Manager David Oliver said city inspectors are able to address a lot of problems, though. Residents do complain, and common areas receive rotating inspections.

"Certainly, there are a lot of housing deficiencies that have not been identified because we have not inspected all of the properties in Champaign," Oliver said. "When we do respond, we do take the opportunity to address all the deficiencies."

The city was heavily involved when more than 100 residents of Gateway Studios at 1505 N. Neil St. were evicted in 2009. The owner was $44,000 behind on its electric bill, and Ameren was shutting off the power. Residents had four days to get out.

It was not until after the residents were moved out that city inspectors were able to get into the building. They found 401 property maintenance and fire code violations, including things like mold, and damage to walls and ceilings.

The building had undergone a fire code inspection less than a year before, and the owners made the required fixes at that time.

Extreme situations like that at Gateway Studios, which still stands vacant almost four years later, are "few and far between," Oliver said.

Patt said that, at least in Champaign, Urbana, Rantoul and Savoy, "you don't have to fight to get a city inspector out."

If a renter lives in unincorporated areas of Champaign County where there are no inspection programs, there are even fewer avenues for recourse.

"Sue the landlord or suffer," Patt said. "Guess which most people choose."

The Urbana inspection program worked out, though, for Drennan, as far as he is concerned. Two weeks after he was given a two-day deadline, he still has clothes and boxes piled in his living room. He still has some belongings sitting in his old place on Silver Street, too.

He does not have cable at his new apartment yet. He needs Comcast to hook it up for him, and they won't come out until he pays the $160 he owes on his last few bills. He doesn't work any more, and his Supplemental Security Income was cut $13 this month — he thinks that's "bogus."

Still, he never really looked for another place to live when he was on Silver Street. Moving was frustrating, but he thinks it worked out for the best. He's got more counter space and fewer roaches.

"I just liked where I lived," Drennan said. "I like this one better."

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