CHAMPAIGN — It was a packed house Tuesday in the Champaign City Council chambers, as a wide range of people chose to address the council members — from landlords to county board members to former felons and re-entry advocates — about the city code regarding housing rentals.
Under public pressure, the council has been reviewing a section of language in the code that allows landlords to deny rentals to most people with felony convictions, with options being to repeal that provision, change it or leave it alone.
Ultimately, the council decided not to repeal the language but rather to clarify it. Their goal is to specify exactly what convictions a landlord should be allowed to take into consideration.
To that end, they are scheduling another study session.
Many of those who spoke up before the council Tuesday asked for a repeal, while others pressed for a revision.
Champaign resident James Corbin, who works with the formerly incarcerated at First Followersdrop-in center, said that when he works with clients, it is often “difficult, stressful and sometimes seemingly impossible” for them to find housing.
He told the council a story about a woman whose partner was about to come home from prison, which she had to disclose to her landlord, who later asked the woman to leave. And Corbin spoke about a man who found a place to live in Champaign but was being charged exorbitant fees.
That’s comparable to what University of Illinois law Professor Yulanda Curtis said she has witnessed herself in her work funding housing for those released from prison. She said during her remarks that situations such as Corbin spoke of are common in her work as well.
“When they are released from prison, they end up couch-surfing, living with family members and not telling landlords they’re there,” Curtis said. “And those who do rent in their own name are subject to slum landlords.”
People who have difficulty finding housing, Curtis said, are reduced to choosing from the few landlords that will rent to them, and often that comes with a reluctance to complain or speak up because of the nature of finding housing.
Martel Miller of Urbana was more clear in his thoughts on the ordinance amendment: “It’s a Jim Crow law in Champaign.”
But landlords who spoke up Tuesday were quick to contest many of the things claimed by advocates of a repeal.
Rochelle Thunderbird, who said she represents a number of landlords in the area, said that landlords “owe safety to their current tenants” and asked that rather than repealing the code, the council should take a bite out of it.
“I do think re-entry is important, but we have to balance out the rights of people living in the rental units,” Thunderbird said. “Are you saying to my clients who may have families in a building that you have to rent to the pedophile? Someone that has a violent weapons-related charge? We don’t think this is discrimination. What it allows is a review; an opportunity to have a discussion.”
Champaign landlord Chris Baird said that most of the landlords he knows rent to formerly incarcerated people and have done so in the past. He, like many other landlords who spoke, said he just wants to be able to ask the question.
“The issue is that we need to be able to protect the people in the neighborhood if we feel they might be in danger,” Baird said. “And the idea that this is racist; this isn’t about a bunch of racist people not renting to black people. I don’t know any landlords who are racist. If they look good on paper and check out, I’ll rent to them.”