Housing Woes: What Does Resolution Look Like?
For the last few weeks, we've been looking at housing problems in the DeKalb area. What does resolution look like as the community works to revitalize struggling neighborhoods?
DeKalb community members have been considering housing conditions when some local buildings were damaged during suspected arsons.
One of these cases occurred at 808 Ridge Drive in early July.
The investigation is still ongoing, said interim police chief John Petragallo.
"I can say that the investigation, or at least for 808 [Ridge], is moving in a positive direction. It's just kind of slow going right now," he said.
808 Ridge is owned by Hunter Properties, and was condemned. Shortly after, a structure fire at a second Hunter complex, 930 Greenbrier Road, led to another condemned building.
A fire-related incident at a third Hunter building on the 900 block of Greenbrier Road was reported just a few days later, on July 16, and is believed to be unrelated, said Petragallo.
"I don't want to rule it out. But I wouldn't say they are connected at this time," he said. "We have no reason to believe that they are."
The first two buildings remain condemned until owners bring them up to code.
More than 100 residents still remain displaced from their homes, and revitalization efforts continue for a section of DeKalb that has struggled with crime and housing for its changing residents.
As the community looks for solutions in complex conversations about local housing, Petragallo said improvements depend on commitment among renters, landlords, and city leadership.
"Everybody needs to buy into this. And I think you do need all these players as part of the solution," he said. "I think if you take one of them out, you really reduce the chances of making real change."
DeKalb County recently created its first catch-all Tenants Association. Halle Boddy, one of the co-founders of the group, said teamwork is the best long term strategy.
"There's certain things where I don't even know what to do for next steps in certain situations," she said.
The Association started out of mounting complaints about the management of Hunter Properties, said Boddy. She added there's an economic consideration to the affordable housing Hunter provides.
Clay Campbell, an attorney representing Hunter Properties in DeKalb, said the group has invested millions of dollars into the community, and that should be seen as a community benefit.
"We just need them to be our friends," Boddy said. "We need them to want us to live in happiness and cleanliness and nice apartment[s]."
Will Heinisch is membership chairman of the DeKalb Area Rental Association, or DARA. It's a group of local property managers and owners. He said the best relationships between renters and landlords is rooted in education.
"And what I feel bad for is you get 5% of the landlords, 10% of landlords, that are negligent, and that looks bad on the 90% of those that have good business models, try and provide quality [housing]," he said.
Heinisch is a landlord, too. He said he wants to see a healthy market and happy community members. He said landlords sometimes have an unfair reputation.
"Landlording, you hear all the negative stories, you don't ever hear a lot of good stories and positive stories. And there is a lot of good landlords, as well as there's a lot of good tenants," he said.
Heinisch is aware of both negligent landlords and tenants. When paired, he said, they create a perfect storm that lacks cooperation.
He said maintenance is the landlord's responsibility.
"It's a very competitive industry. Margins get squeezed. Some of the easiest things to defer on is maintenance, whether it be siding, painting, etcetera," he said. "And slowly, that downward spiral in some properties that causes them to go into a state of disrepair is poor management," he said.
DeKalb County has some of the highest median property taxes in Illinois. Heinisch said he'd like to see more people consider what it's like to be a landlord.
"It's important to me that, as a city, we always come together and that we work together to be able to provide solutions to challenges. And it seems like we always have different challenges that keep rising every four to five years," he said.
DARA teaches its members how to improve their business as a property owner and to know the rights of renters and landlords alike, said Heinisch.
"The truth will always set you free. So, the more you learn the facts -- the more knowledge you have -- the better you're able to find the resolution," he said.
One of the only ways to reach resolution in a problem involving the property itself is to go through a process of code inspection. First Ward Alderman Carolyn Morris says the most she can do is point tenants toward the city's Code Compliance Division.
"But usually the people finding these code violations are, I think, the fire department," she said.
Morris encouraged local renters to advocate for themselves by learning their rights and the code process, while joining the Tenants Association.
"The message I would tell people who think [they're living in a temporary situation] and so then they're not going to get involved in the Tenants Association, I would tell them, do it for the next person behind you," said Morris. "Because even though you're not going to be living there in the future, we need your voice to make sure that other people don't have to live with these same conditions and these same problems."
Code violations can turn into a civil ordinance violations if ignored by owners. If court judgements and fines aren't paid, liens can be placed on a property. Liens must be paid before a property is ever sold in the future. City officials can only move forward within the limits of the law, says city manager Bill Nicklas.
"There are limits," said Nicklas. "The law is, first and foremost, there to protect property rights.”
And fines don't fix behavior, Nicklas said.
Assistant City Manager Raymond Munch said tenants need to be the eyes and ears of the city.
"We have people out there looking for violations, but the residents are obviously noticing those much quicker than we are," he said. "If they feel that there's an issue, they should be reporting those to us."
Munch said the city is doing all it can for renters given their jurisdiction.
"While the speed at which things happen once they're in the court system -- and they're being addressed legally -- can be frustrating at times, I think people should know that the city has done what they can do and employed the tools that we have to address the situation," he said.
For renters like Beyonka Holliday, sometimes the best option forward is to move out. She said she lived at a Hunter Properties building since 2014. She and her family recently moved to a townhouse down the street.
"We did it because we didn't feel safe. The apartment building was -- everything was getting destroyed -- from the exit signs, to the door knobs in the building, to the security locks," she said.
Holliday said she would encourage renters to know their rights and read their leases. She said getting connected with community resources can be a way to advocate for yourself, like she learned to.
For tenants waiting for solutions, resolution can arrive in the form of a change of scenery.
"We feel a sense of peace, we feel a sense of peace. It's a lot more quieter in the area that we stay in," said Holliday.
Next week, we will have details on a community meeting hosted by WNIJ to address housing in DeKalb.