Cities, landlords, tenants struggle with apartment enforcement
CHAMPAIGN — Larry Mattox isn't a complainer.
That's why he doesn't complain about the roaches, the loud music at night and the arguing in the hallway. He's looking to move out of his apartment at 1501 Kiler Drive in Champaign — part of the Bay Harbor Apartments complex — but right now, he's staying put.
"It's what I can afford," Mattox said. "I'll take whatever I can afford."
Signs are posted on doors telling tenants to keep their garbage out of the hallway, not to have loud arguments outside their neighbors' doors and not to go outside late at night to drink alcohol. Some tenants are very "disturbed" by what is happening in the building, the signs note.
Mattox admits that some of his problems could be his fault.
"They say my apartment's too messy," he said, adding that he's not sure his landlord is always spraying for roaches when they say they do.
Messy or not, Mattox's roach situation is indicative of the sometimes tenuous landlord-tenant relationships that exist in the city's most problematic apartment complexes. Tenants often complain about landlords for their lack of maintenance, and landlords often complain about their tenants' intentional destruction of property and their failure to keep up their own home.
Still, tenants complain. In fact, Mattox lives in one of the complexes that most frequently attracted tenant complaints last year, and city records show dozens of code violations at 1501 Kiler, such as inadequate smoke detectors, bad ventilation, dirty carpets, cracks in the walls and roach infestations.
Mattox's building is not too extreme an example. Last year, 119 tenants complained to the city of Champaign about what they thought were unacceptable living conditions.
Landlords have their complaints, too, although they are more unofficial. Paul Zerrouki owns buildings in both Champaign and Urbana that appear often on each city's problem list, but he said he is constantly dealing with tenants who do not treat their home with respect. Some will put a hole in the wall and call for an inspector just to get out of their leases.
"I have good tenants, and I have bad tenants," Zerrouki said.
The city is as close as a mediator between the two as there can be. City inspectors find, and notify landlords of, code violations — many of which put the tenant in an unsafe living condition — and landlords are susceptible to city fines if they are not corrected.
The city of Urbana has struggled with the fines and is expected to revisit the issue during this week's city council meeting. Some tenant advocates say the fines are not high enough to catch landlords' attention and compel them to fix code violations in a timely manner.
Urbana City Council members are considering raising their fines to deal with those problems — first, they would make those fines mandatory, and not issued at the discretion of city inspectors.
Under a proposal that is expected to go to the city council on Oct. 7, fines and deadlines would be assigned to reflect the severity of a property maintenance code violation. The fines would range from $300 for missing routine maintenance deadlines, and up to $750 per day for severe violations that put tenants’ lives, health or safety at risk.
"The (current) fines are pitifully low," Esther Patt, director of the Champaign-Urbana Tenant Union and a former alderwoman, told the Urbana City Council this month. "What your staff has proposed is making them pitifully low, but not quite as low."
Patt said fines need to be higher and timelines for fixing code violations condensed if Urbana officials want landlords to take them seriously. And Patt reminded city council members that these aren't just structural issues — there are real people living in these conditions.
"Low fines for landlords to break the law are not fair to tenants who have to live with the violations, and they're not fair to all the good landlords who have to spend all their time and their money to keep their places up to code," Patt said.
Zerrouki owns a number of buildings in Champaign that were most frequently inspected after his tenants requested city intervention on code violations. A pair of buildings at 1410 and 1412 W. Anthony Drive were among those, as was his property at 601 Crescent Drive.
In five tenant-requested inspections at the Anthony Drive complex last year, a city inspector found 117 instances where the buildings were in violation of city code — water damage to walls, holes in the floor and roaches.
Last week, Zerrouki was at the building, remodeling an apartment where a tenant had just moved out. He also pointed to torn window screens he said he had fixed very recently but that had been broken out again upon his return.
"I'm complying," Zerrouki said. "I'm doing everything I can."
He believes that not all of his residents know how to or want to take care of their homes.
"When they moved in there, it was spotless," Zerrouki said.
Zerrouki's reputation as a landlord is tenuous in both Champaign and Urbana. He has come under scrutiny by Urbana city officials and residents who say a number of buildings he owns on Silver Street are bringing down the surrounding neighborhood.
Unlike in Champaign, city inspectors in Urbana inspect every property on a rotating basis and assign grades to those apartments based on the inspection.
Zerrouki's buildings at 1302, 1304 and 1401 Silver St. in southeast Urbana were the only three in the city to receive an F. Those buildings were shuttered earlier this year after engineers found that balconies and stairways were in danger of collapsing. Another Zerrouki building at 1305 Silver St. scored a D.
Last week, workers were doing brick work and remodeling at those apartments. Talon Wright, associate manager for BZ Management, which is Zerrouki's management company, said they are updating the color scheme in their buildings to make them more modern and they are working to house more college students and veterans.
Zerrouki said his apartments in southeast Urbana — including a group now vacant but being remodeled at 905, 1001 and 1003 Colorado Ave. — will be "almost luxury apartments" by the time he's done.
"There is so much we can do instead of fighting," Zerrouki said.
This story has been updated to correct information regarding the Urbana proposal to adjust its property maintenance fines. The correct information appears above.