BLOOMINGTON — City officials say ensuring apartments rented by low-income tenants are safe has to be balanced with possibly making them homeless if their landlords don't comply with city codes.
Many of the landlords who chronically violate standards provide housing for low-income tenants, said Assistant City Attorney George Boyle.
"If we want to be very tough on them and shut them down, then what we're doing is eliminating some of the housing opportunities for low-income residents," added interim City Manager Steve Rasmussen.
"So there is a tough balancing act between maintaining a good inspection program providing for the safety of tenants and putting a lot of low-income tenants out on the streets."
Adrian Barr, managing attorney for Prairie State Legal Services which provides free legal services to low-income tenants, said he thinks Bloomington "has struck a good balance."
"If Bloomington pushes too hard, it does negatively impact the tenants," he said. "For example, if they condemn the building, everyone has to move out and then they're homeless."
In September, a city inspector found 262 city code violations at a 12-unit building at 1101 Gettysburg Drive. The periodic inspection was required by the city's rental inspection program and was not triggered by any specific complaints from the tenants, said city officials.
"A lot of times residents in this type of housing are people who have a hard time finding housing due to their credit history and sometimes criminal history," said Barr. "So when they're in housing, they are thankful they have a roof over their heads and they don't won't to jeopardize that by reporting the landlord for not keeping up the property."
One of the Gettysburg residents, Cynthia Carruthers, told The Pantagraph that a month after moving into the building in October she reported several violations — including no heat, broken appliances and mold — to city inspectors, but the landlord never addressed the issues.
The living conditions there were “the worst I’ve ever come across,” she said.
“We could have moved elsewhere, but I don’t know how that would’ve worked out. With my daughter’s disabilities, it’s challenging. The problem is cost. Some landlords cover utilities and some don't. Also, if you have something on your background, credit wise, that can stop you from getting an apartment.”
Barr said his agency has not heard from any of the Gettysburg Drive residents, but if they contact him he will help with getting their security deposits returned and other legal assistance.
Some repairs were made by owner Wayne Pelhank and contract-for-deed purchaser/property manager Ed Duran, but they were summoned to appear on Wednesday in administrative court after a Jan. 30 re-inspection turned up 226 code violations, including smoke alarm problems, missing doors, windows that didn't open, improperly installed doorknobs, damage from water leaks, and cockroaches. Four of the units were unoccupied.
Pelhank and Duran also face 572 similar code violations at five apartment buildings in the 900 block of West Front and West Grove streets.
Meanwhile, the city is hearing criticism for taking five months to summon the two landlords to appear in court.
"I really think our inspectors are thorough in the process that they do," said interim city Community Development Director Bob Mahrt. "I don't think both of these people weren't doing their jobs. They did their due diligence."
Deputy Corporation Counselor Angela Fyans-Jimenez, who prosecutes city code violations, said the city has to provide due process in notifying and providing reports of the violations to the landlords, allowing them time to fix the problems, re-inspecting the properties and then summoning them to court when violations are not addressed.
The amount of time allotted to complete repairs varies based on whether there are safety factors, the complexity and extent of the repairs, and the number of repairs, said Boyle.
He thinks the city needs more than two rental inspectors to handle the 12,000 units the city is responsible for inspecting.
“Given the number of units to be inspected, certainly an additional inspector would be of help in making sure that inspections occur more frequently," said Boyle.