Landlord v. Tenant: Housing Inspectors Seek Compliance, Not Punishment | WGLT

Landlord v. Tenant: Housing Inspectors Seek Compliance, Not Punishment

Sep 7, 2017

On a sunny afternoon, Bloomington housing inspector Gayle Price walks up a driveway to a wood-framed home on South Western Avenue.

“So, I’m done with my re-inspection. And for the most part everything is done. There were a couple of small items," Price says.

She carries a clipboard with a long list of items she usually checks during rental property inspections—from the working condition of the plumbing and electrical wiring, to the overall structure of the unit, the amount of trash in outdoor bins, and even the amount of foliage.

Landlord v. Tenant is a special GLT investigative series exploring low-income rental housing in Bloomington-Normal.

“I don’t expect non-compliance. I expect compliance. If I have to go back a few more times to be fair and if some things don’t get done according to my schedule, as long as it is not hurting anybody, I am more than happy to give people a few extensions to get things done. But at the end of the day, we expect compliance," Price says.

Price is one of two Bloomington housing inspectors. Until 2014, the city had only one inspector to ensure that more than 12,000 rental units were up to code. With the addition of a second inspector, the number of housing checks more than doubled last year to 894 from 390 in 2013.

The number of housing code violations has also doubled, from 2,200 two years ago to nearly 4,500 last year.

Price says the city focuses mainly on units that have a history of disrepair.

“I speak with the owners, I look at the list of items for repair and I get their input. We work together based on any factors that might affect the schedule, but we get a compliance date that is reasonable for them and for the city and when that date comes, we have another re-inspection. We check everything. We don’t just trust they get fixed. We go back," Price said.

Inspectors like Price have to strike a balance. They have to weigh holding landlords accountable to keep up their rental property. And they need to maintain a stock of affordable housing in a city where low-income rentals units are in short supply.

Rental Property Inspections - City of Bloomington

Bloomington Rental Property Inspections

Editor's note: In 2014, violations data is skewed due to a change in the city's rental registration and inspection program.

Tom Dabareiner heads Bloomington’s Community Development office, which oversees housing inspections.

“The rental program would not be in place if it wasn’t for the city’s interest in protecting those who find it hardest to battle the difficult landlords," Dabareiner said. "In fact, the lowest income tenants are the ones we are really trying to help the most.”

Dabareiner says the city’s main interest is getting landlords to comply with the housing code, rather than penalizing them. Compliance, rather than punishment, is the goal in Normal as well.

Gayle Price, left, one of Bloomington's two housing inspectors, checks a fence at a rental property with Carey Snedden, the city's manager for code enforcement
Credit Cristian Jaramillo / WGLT

“The town’s philosophy (is) we’re not interested in hauling people into court," said Greg Troemel, who oversees Normal's housing inspections program.

"There is a place for it, but ordinarily our preference is to try to sort things out between the landlord and the tenant and our program. Historically, I would say we have had pretty good luck.”

Landlords receive certain courtesies. Both Bloomington and Normal inspectors notify landlords before an inspection takes place.

“We provide written notice, so this is not a surprise inspection. We provide ample notice. Then we accompany somebody from that ownership, whether the property manager or owner. We never do inspections on our own. It is always with someone who is representative of that property," Troemel said.

On inspection days, he said, landlords sometimes send maintenance workers with tool boxes to a property so they can make repairs on the spot to avoid receiving a citation.

Price, the Bloomington housing inspector, says inspectors will work with landlords—to an extent.

“Every property has its own dynamic," Price said. "We don’t let things drag on for a year. That is not reasonable. Some things do go on longer because some things can only be done seasonally (like) painting.”

Repeat Customers

But there are times when violations do continue. And landlords receive multiple opportunities to fix problems.

"The legal process is our best friend. Sometimes it operates slowly, but it truly is our best friend in the long run."

Take the case of a property at 501 W. Market Street, owned by Cynthia Shepard, which dragged on for more than a year. Shepard has 50 rental properties in Bloomington. The city has cited her dozens of times in just the past year for code violations.

In March of last year, an inspector determined a unit within the Market Street property was quote “damaged, decayed and dilapidated structurally” with “partial or complete collapse is possible.”

The inspector described the unit as “dangerous” to the health and safety of the public. The city scheduled a re-inspection in November, and found Shepard had not fixed the problems. Four months passed. Then in February, the city issued a petition of contempt against Shepard. She faced a fine of $950.

But on the day the case was to go to trial in Circuit Court, the city dismissed the contempt case.

“This case really arose out of a vacant unit," said attorney Greg Moredock, who represented Bloomington. "Its roof was deteriorating, and then there were some interior issues as well with the property.”

Moredock said the city decided to drop its case against Shepard because she had repaired the most immediate threat to public safety, a sunken roof. She also had received estimates from contractors to repair flooring, framing and drywall in the unit. The cost of the repairs would total about $17,000.

“I felt like she was making a good faith effort to keep renovating this place to bring it up to code," Moredock said.

As a result, the city suspended her $950 dollar fine.

“What we would rather have happen is have that $950 put in toward the $17,000 (repair) bill. So typically what we look to do is get everything abated first and then enforce our fine," Moredock said.

Bloomington housing inspector Gail Price says routine inspections of rental properties include such items as plumbing fixtures, electrical wiring, outdoor fixtures, even the amount of trash in bins.
Credit Cristian Jaramillo / WGLT

Most cases involving housing code violations don’t make it to Circuit Court. Bloomington and Normal both rely on administrative courts. The Shepard case, for instance, was sent back to administrative court.

Angela Fyans-Jimenez is the attorney who handles most of the administrative filings for Bloomington. Fyans-Jimenez says her goal is “abatement,” getting landlords to fix the problem.

“I’m seeing these people every two weeks or every week to make sure the abatement is being done, not only for their own lives but for the lives in the community around them,” she said.

Some of the same types of violations keep cropping up.

“We have had bed bugs, mold inside refrigerators and outside of kitchens where they haven’t had appropriate air and they are older units," Fyans-Jimenez said.”

A few years ago, bed bugs were such a common problem that tenants who attended the administrative hearings in the Bloomington City Council chambers occasionally unwittingly carried the bugs on their clothing. After the Council Chambers had to be fumigated, the city decided to no longer hold bed bug cases there. They are now held at Bloomington police headquarters.

Fyans-Jimenez says bed bug cases have declined in recent years. Roaches and rodents are still problems. She recalls one landlord’s property.

“That particular individual, it was a rental of a single-family home, and he had so many rats that the inspector could see the rats running across the windows.”

City inspectors dubbed it the “ratatouille house.” The city eventually got the rodents out of the house.

Rental Property Violations - City of Bloomington

Bloomington - Rental Property Violations

Editor's note: In 2014, violations data is skewed due to a change in the city's rental registration and inspection program.

Price, the Bloomington housing inspector, says several other cases resulted in compliance.

“I had a tenant thank me profusely. She said she had been living in that apartment for years and never not had roaches until we had an inspection. She said the owner would spray periodically, just whatever you can buy on your own, and do a treatment to keep her happy, but until we came in and saw it through (there was no change.) That is about quality of life. That makes the job so worth it," Price said.

She and other housing officials, like Community Development director Dabareiner, acknowledge the current system isn’t perfect. But it provides enough checks and balances that tenants living in dire conditions can get help.

“The legal process is our best friend. Sometimes it operates slowly, but it truly is our best friend in the long run," Dabareiner said. "In the end, judges recognize who are the frequent flyers here, who are the problem landlords.”

Dabareiner says he hopes that with consistent oversight, the landlords who have chronic violations with either do a better job with their properties, or else get so annoyed they’ll take their business elsewhere.

Coming Friday: GLT's Judy Valente examines how hard it is to bring a case against a landlord. And we’ll hear one landlord’s side of the story who is frequently cited for housing code violations. Read more of the Landlord v. Tenant series.

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