Deteriorating Dwellings: Village Aims to Protect Renters
Winnetka trustees asked to see a draft of a property maintenance code that would provide a first line of defense against negligent landlords.
When Jennifer McQuet moved to Winnetka three years ago, she expected to be treated with dignity. And for a time, she was. But soon she began to feel stigmatized for renting.
“Renters here are openly referred to as transients,” McQuet said before the Winnetka trustees during Tuesday night's study session. “They’re seen as people who don't work hard enough to afford a home.”
The real trouble began when she and her family moved into a house.
“When our basement flooded for the third time, our landlord blamed us for flushing diapers,” she said. “I have teenagers. We swallowed a $13,000 deposit.”
Other residents have complained about their landlords refusing to respond to mold. Or leaky ceilings. Or poor ventilation. It was to heed these concerns that village trustees requested a formal draft of a property maintenance code at their informational session Tuesday. This code would give officials a way to regulate basic livable conditions instead of having to oust residents from their deteriorating dwellings—a power which the Winnetka's currently lacks.
This initiative is one prong of the village's affordable housing plan, which suggests multiple ways to increase housing options in the village. The aim is to maintain the number of rental units and maintain their viability.
The draft the board will see at its next meeting will affect multi-use buildings in the commercial-use district but will exclude residential condominiums as a “separate issue.”
“We’re going to come back with a draft ordinance — not simply a markup of the model code,” said Kathy Janega, Winnetka village attorney. She defined multi-use buildings as those with a mix of residential, retail and office space. The prospective code would incorporate a complaint-driven process so that there would be probable cause for village intervention.
For now, the village is stuck between an extreme response or no action all.
“If a person is getting black sludge out of the faucet, we don't have a way of handling that without declaring the building uninhabitable and evicting them,” Janega said. “The property maintenance code would give you a way to address that.”
Residents responded with mixed perspectives. Some, like James Sayegh, who owns commercial property on Green Bay Road and in the Winnetka Galleria, were concerned that the village is encroaching on property rights.
“It seems like (this) is being used as a Trojan horse to continue a pattern of not respecting our property rights and grab a little more authority,” Sayegh said, pointing to the fact that the village is without a streetscape code. “The message we’re getting is that it’s okay for the village to defer maintenance because of budgetary concerns, but it’s not okay for private citizens. Before you ask us to do our part, do yours.”
Others didn’t see it as a property rights issue at all.
“This is an issue of elemental fairness,” said Marc Hecht. “I’m terribly embarrassed Winnetka has gone this long without a provision. We’re 110 years behind the times, and I hope you'll get us up to speed quickly.”
Before agreeing to see a preliminary draft, trustees offered their thoughts on the matter. Though they stressed that a potential code wouldn’t be a witch hunt to find every piece of peeling paint, they acknowledged there are basic standard-of-living issues that must be regulated.
“There is an obligation to provide a certain baseline shelter for the people who are paying rent,” said Trustee Christopher Rintz, who owns both commercial and residential property himself. “I think that these responsibilities, contractual and otherwise, are irrespective of the economy. Landlords do not have the option of providing substandard housing just because it's a bad economy. I bet nine times out 10, the landlord didn't lower his rent just because the tenant was having a bad time.”
Trustees had a slew of questions about the potential property maintenance code, from cost to fairness to what types of structures would be included. Mike D’Onofrio and his community development team will answer those at the next meeting.
It’s far from certain what would be included in such a property maintenance code—most of the specifics are still up for grabs at the hands of a board that took three hours to discuss whether it wanted more information. But if a code is to be established at all, this draft is the first step.
As the trustees sat in their wood-paneled council chamber, the chandeliers illuminated the last line of the Athenian Oath emblazoned on the wall: "...in all these ways we will transmit this city not only not less but greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us."