Proposal would put landlords on hook for negligence
URBANA — Negligent landlords would have to pay tenants' relocation costs if their apartments are shuttered, according to a proposed ordinance city council members supported on Monday.
The ordinance, which still needs final approval, targets landlords who don't keep properties up to code — which ultimately results in building condemnations and what amounts to evacuation of residents. And, especially in recent cases, those residents are usually lower income people with nowhere to go.
That is a situation city officials have spent a lot of time dealing with during the past few years. Take, for example, last year's closing of three buildings on Silver Street where inspectors found balconies and stairwells to be structurally unsafe.
City officials immediately condemned those buildings (which, 18 months later, remain vacant and are the source of litigation between the city and the landlord), and all their residents had to move out immediately.
There was also the 2011 closure of buildings in the Urbana Townhomes apartment complex on South Lierman Avenue, where inspectors found "general property maintenance issues" that made the buildings unlivable: Nonfunctional smoke detectors, missing fixtures and broken glass among them.
It is cases like those where the landlord would be on the hook for tenants' relocation expenses. Landlords would have to refund any prepaid rent or security deposits, the cost of the physical move (like a moving company or rental van) and the tenant's cost to reconnect any utilities. If the residents had less than 30 days' notice, the landlord would be responsible for "the reasonable cost" of a hotel or motel room up to 14 days.
If the landlord doesn't pay, the city can issue a fine of up to $750 per day. The ordinance also gives the city authority to be reimbursed by the landlord if the city has to advance the money to displaced tenants.
The conditions that would trigger the ordinance are very narrow, noted Alderwoman Diane Marlin, D-Ward 7. She has said the condemned buildings on Silver Street have had a profound effect the surrounding area, which is in her ward, and the rules would apply only in cases where landlords have been negligent to the point of putting their tenants health and safety in jeopardy.
"It's not a broad category," Marlin said. "It's not acts of God and nature or anything like that. It's very, very narrow."
Landlords that do at least the minimum and keep their complexes up to all building safety and property maintenance codes are safe.
"This won't affect 99 percent or more of the landlords in this community," Marlin said.
In the past, the city has taken up the cause of emergency relocation of displaced residents. In 2009, the city started setting aside a few thousand dollars to help in cases where it condemned a building and the residents were put out. This year, the city has $7,000 budgeted for that reason.
The focus is on safety, said Alderman Dennis Roberts, D-Ward 5, and it puts more of that responsibility on property owners in cases where they fail.
"It places the responsibility of that failure completely and squarely on the landlord, where it belongs, and not on the city," he said.
The rules were drafted with the help of social service professionals, including Esther Patt, director of the Champaign-Urbana Tenant Union. She said Monday night that the ordinance doesn't really do anything landlords don't already have to do under contract with their tenants.
But the problem is that some landlords just don't refund, say, prepaid rent because those tenants don't always have the resources to challenge them, Patt said. For example, if a tenant paid rent on the first of the month and the building was condemned on the second, those residents would have neither a place to stay nor the rent that they paid for it.
"The tenants were poor, and the landlord thought they could just give them nothing, and they wouldn't have real access to the court system," Patt said.
But she thinks landlords might be more likely to pay under the threat of a $750 per day fine from the city.
"Basically, the landlord has to make the tenant whole," Patt said.