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Hold On Water Shutoffs Spells Big Bills For Bloomington Landlords

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Some Bloomington landlords are getting stuck with huge water utility bills their tenants aren't paying during the pandemic.

Water shutoffs have been on pause for the last year to protect people economically hurt by COVID. Some landlords say a few tenants take advantage of the situation—and now they're on the hook for months of unpaid bills.

Landlord Janis Hollins recently got a surprise: a bill for nearly $2,000 in unpaid water charges from a unit she and her husband own.

Hollins said this was the first they'd heard of the overdue bill. By the time they received notice from the City of Bloomington, nearly a year's worth of bills had stacked up. The city gave them 15 days to get current on the account or face possible legal action—including a lien on the property.

In non-pandemic times, Hollins said the solution would be simple.

“The incentive that works is the shutoff notice," she said. "Trust me when I tell you that I have first-hand witnessed...when that shutoff notice arrives at the tenant's house, guess what they do? They pay the water bill."

Bloomington put a hold on water shutoffs last March. It coincided with the statewide eviction moratorium meant to prevent people suffering during the pandemic from ending up homeless.

Hollins said those hurt by COVID aren't the ones pushing the limits.

“We have a lot of phenomenal tenants," Hollins said. "It's these outliers that are really causing a problem. They've got to have incentives to take that responsibility. Hear me and hear me good: This is not a money problem. This is a mentality problem.”

Hollins said 90% of tenants are doing their best to keep up, including restaurant workers and certified nursing assistants who lost their jobs during the pandemic. But she said the other 10% are aware of the moratorium and not budging.

Hollins said while the $2,000 bill is the highest, there are others. In total, she said, they're on the hook for about $6,000 in backlogged water bills.

Hollins said they've tried to offer assistance to tenants, with no luck.

“There is money available," Hollins said. "We have provided the resources to our tenants, we have provided applications, I have offered to give transportation to get them to the agencies that will help with the water bill. There's no incentive. There's a few of them that they just know that they're not going to be held responsible for this.”

Hollins said the same tenants that are blowing off utility bills also aren't paying rent. She said that's left her and her husband cash-strapped for things like property taxes and repairs to furnaces and busted pipes over the winter.

Hollins said she doesn't expect to ever get that money back. She said the amount due is now too large for tenants to afford, and there's nothing for her as a landlord to go after in small claims court.

But if the Hollins' wants to keep renting the unit after that tenant leaves, they'll have to pay off the account.

“If the property owner wants to get that water bill put into another tenants name, it must be paid back down to zero," she said.

Hollins said this practice never made sense to her—pandemic or not. And when the moratorium on evictions is up, she said, her tolerance also will end.

“If tenants have been blatantly disrespectful in being fiscally responsible for themselves, in either the water bill or the rent, they're going to have to go. We're going to start procedure against them," Hollins said. "I hate to see that happen to people. But there comes a point where the line has to be drawn in the sand. And if we're never going to recoup our losses, we have to cut them.”

Hollins said they're not the only landlords dealing with this problem.

Deputy City Manager Billy Tyus said he's heard from a few others and the city is looking at solutions.

Tyus said he understands the frustration.

“Ultimately, it is the property owner who is responsible for the property, and the potential liabilities that come with it," Tyus said. "Having said that, we have worked to try and create programs and a situation where there's flexibility in payback for for some of the things that could be owed."

Tyus said that could mean reducing the amount that has to be paid immediately and allowing the account to be paid off over a longer stretch of time.

Another option is ending the moratorium on water shutoffs, he said, but that decision involves weighing economic and health impacts from the pandemic on everyone in the community.

"While we're talking about renters and landlords, which is it's important ... this elimination of shutoffs—and the other options that we provided—they apply to other people as well," Tyus said. "They apply to homeowners, they apply to business owners, they apply to people who, in some cases are still struggling financially, who are still struggling from a health perspective. We're still a community where COVID is very real.”

In the meantime, Tyus said, property liens are on hold.

The Bloomington City Council is scheduled to take up the issue at tonight's meeting. In a memo to the council, city staff note most utility moratoriums statewide are no longer in effect, more than a year after the pandemic began.

The Hollins' would like to see a change in city ordinance to better protect landlords even after the pandemic has passed. They're asking for those facing similar challenges to reach out to them at nolimitsrealestate@live.com.

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Dana Vollmer is a reporter with WGLT. Dana previously covered the state Capitol for NPR Illinois and Peoria for WCBU.