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Local Column

Olson: To help DeKalb tenants, consider pressures facing landlords

A condemned signed taped to a door at Ridgebrook Apartments 808 Ridge Drive in DeKalb Wednesday morning, a day after a fire at the complex.
A condemned signed taped to a door at Ridgebrook Apartments 808 Ridge Drive in DeKalb Wednesday morning, a day after a fire at the complex.

In considering the plight of tenants in apartments throughout DeKalb, it helps to also consider the pressures facing the city’s landlords.

It is not an easy time for the people still in the rental business in the city.
Enrollment at Northern Illinois University has declined by thousands, putting downward pressure on rents and making it harder for property owners to find tenants. Meanwhile, the property taxes on the buildings have shot up in the past decade.

Although the rental market is not what it once was, property assessors reliably determine that the buildings have appreciated in value.

DeKalb also created a crime-free housing bureau, which will send inspectors to conduct a “sidewalk inspection” of properties, then give you a notice to fix loose gutters and various things they can see on the outside of a building that may be 30-plus years old.

Some of the community’s landlords have been in the business for decades. Some of them grew up here or have long histories here.

But not everyone has been able to hold on in the face of the challenges in the market. In 2017, for example, Star Properties’ owners decided to cash out, selling several buildings on DeKalb’s northwest side to Hunter Properties, the new local boogeyman, for $30 million.

Hunter, which is based in Evanston, has grown to become the city’s largest landlord in a matter of years, acquiring properties that others wanted to sell for one reason or another. Just outside the city limits, the owners of Suburban Estates apartment complex sold to a Naperville-based ownership group in 2015.

As the market has continued to decline, complaints from tenants have grown. Daily Chronicle reporters have covered stories about people suing, saying they went months without hot water or heat. Another woman told us how the ceiling in her apartment had caved in and there was a mold problem. Another complained there were no working smoke detectors or locks for her home.

Tenants have had enough and are forming the DeKalb Tenant Association, which will be a good thing if it can help bring a voice to people who in recent years have clearly felt frustrated and voiceless.

There are clearly issues.

Since buying big into the DeKalb market, Hunter Properties has been cited almost 500 times for code violations at its buildings but has paid no fines and may not have corrected the problems, some of which are life-safety issues.

The city is suing Hunter, seeking to have the code violations addressed, Hunter is suing the city, claiming it has been singled out for unfair treatment.

As for the code violations, Hunter’s attorney, Clay Campbell, has said it’s like bailing water out of a leaky boat. The company has installed security cameras and smoke detectors only to have them damaged or stolen – or have the building set on fire, as happened multiple times in July at two Hunter-owned buildings.

There seems to be two ways to help both the landlords and their tenants: Investing in the properties and having less tolerance for criminal and nuisance behavior.

While the city is investing millions to spur construction of new luxury apartments downtown through tax-increment financing, there is little assistance available for squeezed landlords whose buildings are aging and increasingly harder to fill.

Landlords also have a responsibility to maintain and invest in their properties – and if they decide that doesn’t make financial sense, they either have to raise their standards for who they accept as tenants or sell the buildings.

Fixing buildings can make a difference in people’s behavior. In criminology, it’s known as the “broken windows theory.” When an environment shows visible signs of neglect, it can encourage crime and anti-social behavior. When things are cleaned up, people clean up their act.

If crime is a problem in buildings, landlords can make a more concerted effort to screen their tenants. Don’t accept people with criminal histories, and evict those who cause problems in the building. There’s no law requiring anyone to rent to felons or people who bring criminal “tagalongs” with them.

DeKalb tenants’ effort to organize will help, too, if it can give more of a voice to people who have felt marginalized for years. Maybe the tenants association can make some progress in fixing people’s problems, and renters will feel like there is someone listening to them at last. Frustrated tenants have been known to explode in frustration at what they saw as injustices that weren’t being addressed by anyone.

But let’s not demonize the people who are renting apartments to others in this city. They are meeting a need in the community. They’re also in business, and their business is facing economic pressure.

Unless we want rental housing stock to further deteriorate, or for out-of-town interests to control more and more rental properties, providing some support to landlords – particularly the locals renting to college students and others – would be wise.

• Eric Olson is general manager of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841, ext. 2257, email eolson@shawmedia.com, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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