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ISU Student Government Association asks for renter rights ordinance in Normal

The Student Government Association at Illinois State University has passed a resolution asking the Town of Normal to require landlords to give a 24-hour notice before entering rental units. It's not the first time such a resolution has passed without any noticeable effect.

This time might be different. Maybe.

Off-campus student senator Braxton Myers said landlords arriving unannounced in a non-emergency setting is a pervasive problem.

"Tenants have been facing this for a long time. And we need this to be solved," said Myers.

Some landlords put it in the lease that they will give a 24-hour notice. Many don't, particularly larger management firms that have a lot of units to fill. When tenants don't get a heads up, they can be surprised, and worse. Myers said he's one of those students. Several times, he hasn't had a chance to clean things up. He's been cooking. And so on.

"Even one time when I was sleeping, I heard a knock on my bedroom door. It was from people trying to show my apartment. I didn't even know they were in my dwelling," said Myers, adding he doesn't feel very good when that happens.

"Shock. A little bit of embarrassment. I felt a little bit that my dignity was taken away. I felt sort of insecure," he said.

The ordinance the Student Government Association wants is similar to ones in other Illinois university towns: DeKalb, Evanston, and Urbana. It would not apply to emergency situations and repairs. The main issue is showings for potential new occupants. The measure would let tenants who have proof of an unlawful entry for showings to take a landlord to small claims court and file an injunction to prohibit future action. State law doesn't cover this area, but does allow local ordinances to lay on top of state renting rules.

"Tenants have a right to know at least when someone is coming into their apartment if they do not know those people," said Myers.

Trying again

This is the third year in a row the Student Government Association has passed a resolution asking for the ordinance. It hasn't gone anywhere. Often it gets derailed when students who work on the proposal graduate and the issue languishes until someone takes it up again.

Myers said this time is different, noting student leaders have more co-sponsors and other student groups signed on than ever before.

"We are definitely confident that this time will be different. We have a lot of student support. We have a lot of students that have dealt with this issue personally," he said.

Myers said he and another student senator met last year with property management companies that he said opposed the measure. WGLT messages to two apartment management businesses weren't returned. The head of the McLean County Area Landlord Association declined an interview or comment.

Several Normal Town Council members said they have yet to hear from landlords about the issue and will need to hear more.

"Certainly, the students have been starting to make the case out there," said council member Kevin McCarthy. "They are telling stories about the times it doesn't happen. OK. Fair. How much of that is a problem and what is the right solution? I think the jury is still out on that part."

Another council member said she heard about it last spring and thought the idea had died.

"It's a policy proposal that has not been well socialized, which is troubling," said Kathleen Lorenz, adding good policy usually flows from having all stakeholders at the table. Often, that means multiple one-on-one meetings between council members and the mayor, sometimes a work session, some public vetting, and even response time. She said the students haven't checked all those boxes and that's problematic.

"I think it really does matter where you start. It does. Because if you miss some of these primary steps, then you put the cart before the horse," she said.

Mayor Chris Koos said he agrees the idea hasn't been fully tested. He said for the issue to advance, he has to see broad-based support and it's not there yet.

Myers, the student senator, said student advocates are scheduling meetings with council members to plead their case. He said two thirds of the ISU student body lives off campus — about a third of the population in Normal — and makes up a big part of the tenant population. Myers said student advocates also are trying to organize the student body so when the time comes, they will "show up and show out" that this is a student concern.

Reaction from council members

Setting process aside, the idea of a mandatory notice itself is getting a mixed reception among council members. Chemberly Harris said entry without notice happened to her during her student days and she didn't like it.

"It's very alarming to me that we as a town do not have something in place already that goes across the board," she said.

The fact that some property owners already put a notice provision in a lease weakens the argument it would be burdensome to management companies, said Harris. And in the cases where it is part of the lease, 24 hours seems to be a common limit.

Lorenz said government does get involved in fair housing practices and in making sure the most vulnerable are taken care of. She is not sure this rises to that level.

"Is this a role for government? And my personal inclination is to keep government at a minimum. That's always been my bent," said Lorenz.

Every community is different, said Lorenz, who isn't sure she wants to have different requirements in Normal than those in Bloomington. She also doesn't like comparisons to ordinances in other college towns. She said such a requirement may not take into account unique factors in this community.

"Adding more regulation to an already precarious housing supply and rental situation I think could really have some unintended consequences," said Lorenz.

She and another council member, Scott Preston, said timing is a key issue.

The leasing period in the spring and summer is compressed. Property management firms have a lot of work all at once. Preston said 24-hour notice is a non-starter with him. He said landlords are not the only ones affected by making it more difficult to get into apartments; it’s the transfer student who comes to campus for one day only, and the single mom working multiple jobs with only one day off per week as well. Preston said those members of the community deserve an equitable opportunity to see an apartment in person before signing a lease — just as current tenants had before they signed.

McCarthy said there is a lot of middle ground between no notice and a full day ahead.

"Letting somebody know before you are coming is reasonable," he said. "I guess the debate for me is over how much is necessary and important. Is 24 the right number. I don't know. Is it 12? Is it four? I don't have that answer yet."

For McCarthy, the goal would be to create language that doesn't harm landlords and lets them remain profitable and to add some protections that are concerning to tenants.

To reach the full council, the Student Government Association will have to assemble a coalition and work the process over many months.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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