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Sterling, Rock Falls seek collaborative effort on inspections of rental properties

Published: Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014 1:15 a.m. CDT

In 2009, Sterling failed in an attempt to institute an inspection program for rental properties. Five years later, Sterling and Rock Falls are working together to bring a similar program to both cities.

Building inspector Mark Searing of Rock Falls and Building and Zoning Superintendent Amanda Schmidt of Sterling have been working on each city’s program for several months, coordinating their efforts to ensure the rules would be the same on both sides of the bridge.

“There are landlords who own property in both cities, so we hope to have basically the same ordinance,” Searing said. “There might be some slight language differences, but there shouldn’t be any inconsistencies.”

This type of program would be a first for both cities. Currently, inspections are done only after a complaint is made by a tenant or landlord. By then, problems often have become much more complicated to address.

“It was time to revisit this,” Schmidt said. “We want to get things fixed before they become a huge problem.”

Opposition from the Sauk Valley Landlord Association to mandatory inspections helped to derail Sterling’s efforts to set up a program in 2009.

A meeting with the landlords group will soon be scheduled to discuss the merits of the program, Schmidt said.

“The objective of this program is to protect everybody,” Schmidt said. “It’s not an us-against-them sort of thing.”

The impetus for the program is to bring the quality of housing to a higher standard, Searing said.

“Most do a good job,” he said. “This is more for the minority who don’t.”

Landlords unhappy with effort

The stance of the Sauk Valley Landlord Association hasn’t softened much since 2009, President Rod Kleckler said. Kleckler, of Rock Falls, said he was first contacted about resurrecting the efforts a few months ago.

“From what I was told, this is about controlling absentee landlords and beautifying the cities,” Kleckler said.

The cause and desired effect don’t make a straight line, Kleckler said.

“If they want to beautify the cities, why do they need to go inside houses and look at the water pressure?” Kleckler asked.

The Sauk Valley Landlord Association and its board oppose any restrictions on the rental process, its president said.

“This isn’t about life/safety; if they would enforce the codes as they are written now, there is plenty in there for them to make the cities look better,” he said. “Why target only rental properties? It’s hard enough for us to make repairs, pay taxes and insurance.”

A rough draft that outlines how the program would work is being reviewed and tweaked by both cities. The Building Code committee has been looking at it in Rock Falls. Sterling has no such committee, but the Planning Commission will get the ordinance before it goes to the City Council.

The draft calls for a system that grades properties A through D, with A being the highest and D the lowest. The inspections would be done between tenants when someone moves out.

“We’re trying to put as little impact on landlords as possible, and try not to bother tenants when properties are occupied,” Searing said.

If the property received a good grade, it would not be reinspected for 5 years after a new tenant moved in.

A room-by-room checklist, similar to one used for inspections of low-income housing, would be used. Minor problems would likely have to be addressed in about 30 days, while the time frame would be negotiable for bigger problems, Searing said.

“The A grades would generally be newer buildings,” Searing said. “The D’s would be major problems like life/safety and electrical issues, where the building is not occupiable.”

Not about ‘revenue generation’

Inspection fees have not been set, but both cities say they want to keep them as low as possible. The draft calls for landlords with multiple properties to get a break.

“This is about compliance, not revenue generation,” Searing said.

It is hoped that the program will be self-sustaining. Rock Falls’ preliminary numbers estimate the cost of the program at $17,000 in the first year. The plan calls for the possible hiring of a part-time inspector to help with the extra work.

“Hopefully, as time goes on, fewer inspections would be required and costs would go down,” Searing said.

About one-third of properties in both cities are rentals. Housing market dynamics over the past few years have tipped the scales toward renting.

“With all of the foreclosures, people are picking up cheap rentals and flipping them,” Searing said. “And people who used to own are becoming renters.”

Work on city budgets will begin in earnest this month and are due May 1. Both cities will wait out that process before bringing a final draft to their respective councils.

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