Inspecting Urbana rentals

By Brian Pierce

If you live in an apartment, you’ve probably dealt with a fair share of broken stuff. Maybe the interior lights in the hallway go out. Maybe your smoke detector doesn’t work. Maybe the toilet leaks. Maybe the window in your room is cracked.

And maybe you call up your landlord and, if you’re lucky, they come and fix it right away. But if you’re not so lucky (and pretty much everybody I know who lives in an apartment falls in this category), it takes them weeks to finally come out and address the problem – or they don’t come out at all.

One of the few methods in place to ensure that your building is up to code is for an Urbana inspector to come inspect the premises. At the moment, Urbana has only enough inspectors to inspect a building once every seven years. This places a heavy burden on tenants to complain to the Tenant Union for an inspection, which many are reluctant to do for fear of creating an adversarial relationship between tenant and landlord.

At an Urbana City Council meeting tonight, a proposal will be discussed which would increase the inspection team to ensure inspections every three years.

Landlords will argue that your rent will increase dramatically as a result of this. But if you do the math, the rent will go up about $1 a month per unit.

They will also argue that your privacy rights will be infringed upon by snooping inspection teams (the same landlords who objected to a 1994 proposal that required landlords to give advance notice before entering a tenant’s apartment). But the ordinance requires 72 hours notice to both tenant and owner before an inspection team can come, which most tenants would enthusiastically welcome if it means that broken window in the bedroom will get fixed.

But just in case there was a concern with privacy issues, I asked Colin Bishop, the chair of the Illinois Student Senate’s Committee on Student Rights and the President of the Student American Civil Liberties Union (an organization of which I am a member), about it. “I strongly favor increased enforcement of housing safety regulations,” he told me, “especially in a college community where many tenants are first-time renters and don’t know what to expect from landlords. It may even be the first time they’ve ever signed a contract.” And when the ACLU can’t find a privacy rights issue buried somewhere, you can rest assured that no such issue exists.

The most contentious provision of this proposal has nothing to do with inspections, though. The provision would impose fines on landlords who do not correct code violations by the first deadline given by the city. As the system works now, a landlord goes unpunished for violating code violations until the case escalates to the point of prosecution and conviction, which means the violation could go unaddressed for half of a tenant’s lease.

Esther Patt, coordinator of the Tenant Union, calls this the most important provision of the proposal. “If there are no fines, my enthusiasm for this ordinance would disappear,” she told me. “The city fines tenants and homeowners for numerous violations, (including) noise, failing to cut grass, leaving trash on the curb – it’s ridiculous that landlords violating city codes get away with no fines.”

Especially when the issue comes down to a matter of safety. When a broken interior light results in an injury, or a broken window enables a robbery, or a fire goes undetected until it is too late due to a faulty smoke detector, landlords will have to fall back on sturdier arguments than minimal rent hikes and nonexistent privacy issues.

The city council meeting is tonight at 7p.m. at 400 S. Vine Street. If you’ve got the time, and if you live in an Urbana apartment, go there and speak out. Your roommates will thank you, even if your landlord doesn’t.