Zoning law puts burden on landlords

By Nate Sandstrom

Landlords who knowingly allow more than four nonrelated people to live in a single-family housing unit will face increased fines after the Urbana City Council unanimously passed an amendment to a zoning ordinance late Tuesday night.

Under the new rules, landlords who violate the over-occupancy rule face minimum fines of $500 for a first offense, $750 for a second infraction and $1000 for any subsequent violations. The rising scale for repeat offenders would apply to all properties they own.

If a house is over-occupied without the landlord’s knowledge they would not be fined, said alderwoman Esther Patt, who is also coordinator of the University of Illinois Tenant Union.

Patt said landlords frequently put four people on a lease, but allowed more to live in a home. There are several ways of documenting this, Patt said, such as if a property owner ran five credit checks before leasing a property.

Neighbors often report suspected violators. A city zoning official then investigates the claim. In the past some tenants have unknowing incriminated themselves because they were unaware of the rule, Patt said.

In the past, landlords have avoided paying fines by kicking out any person who is not on the lease after being officially informed by the city of the violation. Under the old rule, even if the landlord knew about the violation, he or she would not have to pay a fine if the violation was corrected. This rule change will not allow property owners to avoid fines by putting only four names on a lease, Mayor Tod Satterthwaite said.

“The same landlords (have) been renting the same houses in violation of the law year after year, after year, after year with no consequences,” Patt said. “The only consequence is to the tenants. And if the tenants were chumped into putting only four names on the lease when they were six people, after the two extra leave, the four remaining people have to pay six people’s rent, which is very unfair.”

Some houses in Urbana are zoned as “rooming houses,” to which the rule limiting the number of nonrelated occupants in a home to four does not apply. However, the rule does apply to most houses in Urbana that are designated as “single-family homes.” Patt said this adds to the confusion for people who are from out of town and don’t know the rules.

A list of the properties that are designated as rooming houses is available on the Tenant Union’s Web site.

If students are in violation of the ordinance or have signed a lease for next year that is against the zoning law, they should talk to their landlord and consult the Tenant Union, she said.

Over-occupancy has been a problem in the neighborhood for many years, Patt said. A survey conducted by the city in 1982 found 40 houses in violation of the ordinance, Patt said.

Curtis Pettyjohn, a West Urbana resident, said over-occupancy causes problems in the neighborhood, such as parking, garbage and noise. Pettyjohn agreed many of the landlords are repeat offenders who continually allow their properties to be over-occupied.

“Over-occupancy is a real threat to the stability of the neighborhood,” Pettyjohn said.

Lisa Treul, co-coordinator of the West Urbana Neighborhood Association (WUNA), said she was not concerned about problems caused in the neighborhood by over-occupancy, but worried landlords are taking advantage of students who don’t know the zoning laws.

“We really enjoy our student neighbors … it seems unfair to students should bear the brunt (and be forced to move out because they were not aware of zoning laws),” she said.

Several landlords that had listed property in Urbana with more than four bedrooms did not return phone calls for comment.