Landlords, Champaign council members, candidates discuss city's rental code

Landlords, Champaign council members, candidates discuss city's rental code

CHAMPAIGN — With the Champaign city council set to study a section of city code that allows leasing discrimination on the basis of felony convictions in the coming months, council candidates, members of the human relations commission and about two dozen local landlords and Realtors met Tuesday in downtown Champaign for a preview of what that conversation might look like.

Chapter 17 of the city code currently allows "discrimination in the leasing of residential property based upon a person's record of convictions for a forcible felony or a felony drug conviction or the conviction of the sale, manufacture or distribution of illegal drugs" for up to five years after release.

The question of what to do with the language, which is widely seen as discriminatory, has come up before the council before, but conversations about doing away with the section of the code altogether have stalled.

When the council studies the issue in the next few months, the questions will be whether to lower the number of years after release and whether to come up with a list of felonies that landlords can discriminate against.

At Tuesday's forum, local landlords voiced strong opposition to a repeal — which the city's human-relations commission has recommended to the council — and were hesitant to change the language too much.

Many said they want the ability to choose whom they rent to, which sparked a back-and-forth between them and council members and candidates and some on the human relations commission. Landlords said they already face a difficult rental environment in the county, as Champaign, Urbana and Rantoul all have different leasing rules, so they want to be able to retain the ability to know whom they are renting to before they sign a lease agreement.

Council member Tom Bruno, who said he owns six rental properties in Urbana, stood mainly on the side of landlords at the meeting, saying he "likes our ordinance the way it is."

But as the conversation went on without any clear policy prescriptions, council member Will Kyles interjected to ask what the room's "tolerance level" was to reach a compromise on the code's future.

Kyles described a situation in which landlords are more likely to rent to anyone willing to move in to a high-crime area, avoiding the conviction question, and once those areas become attractive for investment, other landlords come in and begin asking about convictions, shifting the formerly incarcerated population to another neighborhood. He said it's what led to the redevelopment of Bristol Place.

"Where's the fine line? Where do we get to the middle? How do we get to the middle?" Kyles asked. "The harsh reality is that we're playing checkers moving people from here to here."

Human-relations commission member Willie Comer added that one big problem with the ordinance is its effect on children. Many of the people who get out of prison, Comer said, still have children living in the communities they left. Comer said one big aspect of why recidivism rates are high is because of ordinances like Champaign's, which make it more difficult for formerly incarcerated individuals to find housing.

"With this, we're saying, 'You can't come back to where your children are,'" Comer said. "The question a lot of us keep asking ourselves with a lot of the crime issues here is, 'Where are the parents?' Part of why they're not there is because they can't go back home to where their kids are. And the other thing we have to understand is whether or not you decide to rent to someone with a felony, the violent crime in our community has gone up, so it's not like this current language is changing the crime situation."

But while appreciative of Comer's point, longtime local landlord Philip Miller wondered "how much do you coddle a person that's made a mistake?"

"Doesn't the felon have to take responsibility for his or her actions?" Miller asked. "Nobody made them commit the crime. I mean, I don't have any felonies, I don't have any misdemeanors, I try to live my life by the rulebook. Yes, I believe in redemption and giving people a second chance, but there's a flip side to it, too."

Council candidate Jon Paul Youakim was quick to retort, starting a back-and-forth between himself, Bruno and some landlords in the room. He mentioned that studies show adverse childhood experiences lead to increased impulsivity that can eventually result in higher crime.

"All of these things tie together, and I'm not saying it should all be on you all," Youakim said. "It's on all of us as a city. One of the things I'm hearing from you guys is that you want some kind of assessment to know that the person you are renting to is going to make everyone in the apartment safe and that you don't have to worry who you're renting to. But at the same time, we don't want to discriminate against other individuals, because we might end up perpetuating this cycle and not solving the problem."

For Bruno, it's not an issue of safety but rather the ability of the landlord to gauge other things from the question, like the tenant's ability to pay rent. It's something that crosses a landlord's mind, he said.

Youakim quickly interrupted Bruno, saying he wondered why "you're using that marker when there's so many other markers that wouldn't be discriminatory" but yield the same answer. He said if a landlord is worried that their new tenant won't pay rent, they can use questions about income and financial stability to assuage those worries.