Urbana council split on fee hike for property inspections

URBANA — City council members are still split on whether to increase the annual fees landlords pay to have their properties inspected, and groups lobbying on behalf of landlords say the city shouldn't raise fees on the good property managers to pay for the bad.

City officials say they need another property inspector to keep their apartment inspection program closer to being on schedule. Currently, the city has two inspectors in charge of checking 8,900 apartment units for safety and property maintenance violations.

At the rate they're going, it would take two inspectors more than 10 years to get through their inspection cycle, and city administrators say that's too long. When they began their systematic inspection program several years ago, they had hoped they could get to every apartment once every three years.

But city officials say they will need to raise $80,000 in new revenue to pay for that new inspector.

They have proposed increasing rental registration fees to do so. The city council voted 3-3 on the proposal this week in the absence of Mayor Laurel Prussing and Alderwoman Carol Ammons, D-Ward 3, who could now become the deciding vote.

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 units would increase to $55 per year, up from $50, and the city would charge $70 for duplexes, up from $60.

Any landlord who receives a "class A" inspection, the highest possible rating, would receive a waiver for the registration fee the following year.

City officials acknowledge that the workload for its inspectors is caused by a small number of landlords. Of the 3,500 inspections completed by the city's two inspectors last year, more than half were for purposes other than just working through the list of city rental properties as part of the systematic inspection program, according to city documents.

"One of the things that's hampering the cycle that was originally imagined is repeat violations," said Alderman Dennis Roberts, D-Ward 5.

City officials have blamed noncompliant landlords with housing issues in certain areas of the city. Police say poor property management can cause higher crime rates, and city officials have pointed to an area in southeast Urbana, near Silver and Vawter streets, as a prime example.

That area is in the ward of Alderwoman Diane Marlin, D-Ward 7.

"The single biggest issue in my ward is the impact of lack of maintenance and management of these properties," she said. "It's all tied together."

She said poorly maintained properties affect the values of surrounding properties, too, as well as increased litter and, in general, a lower quality of life.

"This is a serious issue, and if we don't get back on top of maintaining these properties, we're losing quality of life," Marlin said. "It's a quality-of-life issue, and I think it's as valid an expense as any other public safety. And I value this as a public-safety priority, just like police and fire."

But Bryan Snyder, president of the Central Illinois Rental Property Professionals, said the increases are too much, especially when the problems are caused by a very small minority of landlords.

"If you are going to go after the few bad apples, don't make the rest of us pay," Snyder said.

The city council this week did consider the increased registration fees along with higher fines for noncompliant landlords and repeat offenders, but did not take any formal action on either proposal.

Some said those higher fines could be the way to go.

"Those are those problem properties," said Neil Malone, government affairs director for the Champaign County Association of Realtors. "You hammer them with fees. Hammer them, and hammer them, and hammer them again. And when they don't pay them, you put a lien on their property. And when they don't pay that, you take that property."

Higher registration fees are "just an increased cost to the bottom line of a whole lot of good business people in town," said Alderman Michael P. Madigan, R-Ward 6. "I understand what the staff is trying to do here, and I do appreciate it, but I just think this is not the right way to get at it. I think fines and late fees are more acceptable."

In the case of increases to registration fees, Malone said that when the cost of doing business is raised throughout the city, it is the residents who suffer.

"That cost gets passed through to the tenant, and they end up paying for it," he said.

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