BLOOMINGTON — The City Council says it's time to start cracking down on landlords who chronically violate city housing codes with fines until the problems are fixed.
That was the consensus of the council after a review of the city's rental inspections program at a special meeting Monday at City Hall. The discussion was prompted in part by a landlord who has amassed nearly 800 code violation at six rental properties, including one destroyed by fire last month.
"The vast majority of our landlords really do want to comply, and when issues are brought to their attention that's what they do," said Ward 4 Alderman Amelia Buragas. "The real problem that we're running into is we have ... a minority of landlords who are chronically noncompliant.
"As a city, our patience needs to run very thin and cannot be infinite because we have people in our community who are living in substandard conditions, and that is just not acceptable," she added.
City attorney Jeff Jurgens was asked to work with the community development department and the city's property maintenance review board, which has landlords and tenants as members, to draft an ordinance that addresses chronically noncompliant landlords.
Since the city created an administrative court in 2015 to deal with code violations, the city's focus has been on getting landlords to correct problems rather than penalizing them.
For example, the city can impose a fine of $50 per violation per day, but if the problem is fixed, the fine is waived and the violator pays only the $110 court cost.
The city has two rental inspectors to handle the 12,000 rental units the city is responsible for inspecting on a three-year cycle.
But there was little support by aldermen to hire additional rental inspectors after interim Community Development Director Bob Mahrt said it was not necessary.
"If we are receiving a number of complaints specific to a property, there is a provision in our code that allows the director to initiate a reinspection of that property regardless of this three-year intent," said Mahrt. "We would move that up on the schedule to address those issues."
The 12-unit apartment building at 1101 Gettysburg Drive had 226 violations before it was destroyed by an accidental cooking fire on Feb. 10. The violations were found when city inspectors conducted an inspection required by the city's regular cycle of inspections.
"We were not receiving a plethora of complaints specifically related to (the Gettysburg building) within the last year," said Mahrt. "There was a large number of violations there, but we're talking about a 12-unit dwelling."
Owner Wayne Pelhank and his property manager, Ed Duran, also have racked up almost 600 violations at another group of rental properties Pelhank owns. The city says the pair are the worst offenders on a list of landlords whose properties are in violation of city code.
Many of the landlords who chronically violate standards provide housing for low-income tenants, said interim City Manager Steve Rasmussen and other city officials, adding that to condemn a building possibly would throw those tenants into homelessness.
"I can't help but think we need to be doing a better of job of educating our tenants ... of their rights, who to call, things that they can do to make sure their concerns will be addressed in a fair manner," said Ward 7 Alderman Scott Black.
At its regular meeting following the special session, the council approved by a 7-2 vote a memorandum of understanding with the Friends of the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts, an independent nonprofit organization that helps raise money for renovations and an endowment fund for the city-owned downtown venue.
The agreement calls for the city to hire a fundraiser and the Friends group to contribute $20,000 toward that person's salary and benefits by April 2020. The annual contribution would increase by $20,000 annually in years 2021, 2022 and 2023 until it is capped at $100,000 a year by April 2024. After 2024 the group will pay the fundraiser's total salary and benefits or $100,000 annually, whichever is higher.