DeKALB – The crisis of a string of arson attempts at city apartment buildings appears to have calmed, but the tension between city government and its largest landlord continues to simmer.
Evanston-based Hunter Properties LLC and its subsidiaries own almost 1,000 rental units in DeKalb, city officials said, more than any other company. Those include two buildings where tenants were forced from their homes after a fire this month, displacing almost 200 people.
DeKalb County court records show city inspectors have cited Hunter Properties almost 500 times for code violations since 2017, although city officials said the company has not paid any fines and the underlying issues may not have been corrected.
“The city will issue the citation or violation, and if there is compliance with that violation, it’s remedied before the court date, and generally, we will dismiss those cases,” DeKalb city attorney Matthew Rose said. “Cases that aren’t dismissed are because they’re still pending their remedy or there’s a fine issue. And fines can be for each day the violation is outstanding.”
Hunter Properties began purchasing buildings in DeKalb in 2016, and its various subsidiaries now control almost 1,000 units in DeKalb, City Manager Bill Nicklas said.
Local attorney Clay Campbell, who represents the company, has said attempts to improve Hunter’s buildings have been hampered because they are in high-crime areas.
“You have an area of the community with lots of vandalism and crime,” Campbell has said. “We’ve put up camera systems that have been torn down, spray painted, fire extinguishers that have been stolen, smoke detectors that have been torn off the walls.
“When you’re trying to operate properties in areas like this, that’s an ongoing challenge.”
Campbell did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Records show 10 Hunter Properties buildings in DeKalb have been cited 483 times for code violations. According to court records, 74 of those violations from 2017 and 2018 have been ruled on and carry fines totaling about $100,000, none of which have been paid. A judge has yet to rule on the other violations.
Court records show the cited violations include electrical and mechanical issues, broken smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, bedbug infestations, security failures, lighting and plumbing problems and more. Hunter is due back in court for a status hearing Tuesday.
Tenants who were victims of the arsons have voiced their frustrations with their landlord, including one who filed a lawsuit after a fire at the Ridgebrook Apartments at 808 Ridge Drive.
On a tour of several Hunter-owned buildings in March, tenant James West pointed out locks to gates and front doors that were broken, and interior conditions in several buildings showed poor upkeep. West and other tenants rallied together shortly after to form the DeKalb Tenants Association in an attempt to advocate for change.
The association will meet from 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday in the parish hall behind St. Paul’s Church, 900 Normal Road, DeKalb.
Renting in DeKalb
Will Heinisch has owned rental property in DeKalb for 25 years. He’s a former president of the DeKalb Area Rental Association and served on the citizen-led Safe and Quality Housing Task Force that helped develop DeKalb’s crime-free housing initiative in 2013. He said the city needs more education for landlords and tenants.
He said Chapter 10 of the DeKalb Municipal Code, which details tenant-landlord relationships and legal responsibilities of each entity, should be more widely cited and studied.
“The original catalyst [for founding DARA] was the city wanted more responsive landlords and didn’t have a handle on where they all were or contacting them,” Heinisch said Tuesday. “One of the recommendations from the task force was to form DARA. That improves communication between [landlords] and the city, and being able to tackle issues if they arise.”
DARA does not list Hunter among its 46 members, and Heinisch said to his knowledge that no one from Hunter had applied to join the association. Heinisch said he saw both tenants and the landlord as bearing some responsibility for the situation.
“You have negligent landlords renting to negligent tenants, and that puts together a perfect storm,” Heinisch said. “And unfortunately you have a number of good tenants that get caught up in the middle.”
DARA members must follow a code of ethics, according to the website. The organization holds quarterly meetings for members with guest speakers to educate landlords on fair housing and anti-discrimination laws, how to do a credit or background check and how leases work.
“Responsible landlords go through an interview process for tenants to make sure they don’t have issues,” Heinisch said. “But tenants also need to step forward and make sure they choose wisely.”
Enforcement can come with challenges, since city code enforcement officers can’t enter private property without a warrant or personal invitation from a tenant. Maintenance inspections can only be done from a nearby sidewalk, or if someone from the city is invited inside personally by a tenant, or in an emergency such as the arsons in June and July, during which DeKalb Fire Chief Jeff McMaster personally inspected 930 Greenbrier Road and found fire code safety violations, which were later remedied.
When a tenant calls the city to report a maintenance issue or something on a property they feel violates city code, code enforcement teams from the city will tour the space in person to assess the issue, Nicklas said.
“You have to give due process unless it’s an emergency like no working smoke detectors,” Nicklas said of property inspections. “Then if [landlords] don’t fix it in five to seven days, they can be fined. In the case of Hunter Properties, we’ve had to fine them and then they don’t pay fines.”
Nicklas said the landlord or property manager’s attorney can appeal a fine and take it to circuit court, which can lead to a drawn-out legal process out for months or years.
“Meanwhile,” Nicklas said, “the problem might not be fixed.”