Urbana council considers raising rental registration fees

URBANA — City administrators asked council members on Monday night to use money from an increased landlord fee to hasten the city's rental property inspection program.

As the city has faced a few high-profile apartment condemnations in the past few years, city officials hope to hire a new building inspector with nearly $80,000 annually in new revenue from increased rental registration fees. Council members held the item over for more discussion in September.

Urbana has two housing inspectors, who have spent much more time addressing distressed or problem properties since the recession took hold in 2008. Considering they are responsible for inspecting the 8,900 units in the city on a rotating basis, officials say it would take 13 years to get an inspector to every apartment.

Community Development Director Libby Tyler said she would not come to the city council asking for a fee increase if the program did not really need it.

"It is unusual to look at what we're doing and realizing we're not keeping up and we are overwhelmed," Tyler said.

With the focus on larger apartment buildings, the multifamily registration fees would take the largest increase: Those rates would go to $65, up from the current $45, for each building and $20, up from $12, for each unit. Single-family and duplex units would increase $5 per year.

Tyler called it a "modest" increase in the fees that landlords pay to register their properties with the city as rental properties. A new inspector, she added, would get the city's housing inspection cycle down to an "acceptable" time period.

Urbana landlord Charles Lozar said there are positives to the city's systematic inspections. But he thought the increased fee could actually have the reverse effect and hurt property conditions.

"Those come directly out of the profits, and if there are no profits left, there will be no investment," Lozar said.

Urbana resident Robin Arbiter said she worries the increased fees will be passed on to residents and said it seems to be "nickel-and-diming the landlords coming out the gate."

Along with the increase in rental registration fees, city council members began a discussion about fines for landlords who do not keep their property up to code. The city may fine a landlord up to $750 per day for each violation not corrected within a certain time period; but the fines are usually much less, and the ordinance does not require city inspectors to level any kind of penalty.

For Arbiter, that was a different question.

"We have a nasty little core of bad business people who have learned that they don't really have much to fear from the city," Arbiter said.

Those fines need to be increased if landlords are to take city violation notices seriously, said Champaign-Urbana Tenant Union Director Esther Patt.

"You have to have a fine that's large enough to get the landlord's attention," Patt said.

There is no formal proposal on the table yet for increasing property maintenance fines, but city officials say they are working on it.

Alderman Charlie Smyth, D-Ward 1, said the minimum fine "should be at least what we fine a student for underage drinking," which is $300.

Alderman Michael P. Madigan, R-Ward 6, said he thought the debate might have been misplaced. He said he agrees there are a handful of bad landlords and he does not want to "stick up for them," but he thought there was too much focus on the property owners.

"There needs to be equal consideration given to bad tenants, and there are a lot of bad tenants in this town," Madigan said.

He said the city seems to be "beating the hell out of" good landlords with increased fees while it should be trying to help them.

"We need to help the people who own property in this town be more successful," Madigan said.

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