DeKalb adopts new crime-free housing initiative: ‘You helped us make this a better law’

The latest version of the city’s crime-free housing ordinance features several changes from the original proposal.

Third Ward Alderman Tracy Smith speaks Monday, Oct. 24 2022 at the DeKalb City Council meeting.

DeKALB – After weeks of debate, DeKalb city leaders this week adopted an amended crime-free housing ordinance, meant to address violent crime in the area and target negligent landlords.

The DeKalb City Council’s unanimous decision comes on the heels of a string of summertime unrelated gun violence reported on the north side that prompted the city’s first homicide of 2022.

The version of the crime-free housing ordinance adopted by the City Council on Monday features several changes from the original proposal. It stipulates, among other things, that landlords are subject to a $1,000 minimum fine should they fail to include the crime-free housing lease provision in a rental agreement for every day that compliance is not met. The updated ordinance also will allow the city to dismiss or halt punitive measures against property owners if remedial action is shown, including efforts to rid unlawful activity from properties.

The ordinance requires landlords to attend educational programs in person within three months of intial registration with the city. An electronic course will also be made available for classes smaller than six and for all existing landlords as an annual refresher as needed, documents show.

The crime-free housing ordinance wasn’t welcomed by all, however.

Opponents have argued that the ordinance fails to protect tenant rights and is inadequately addressing the issue of how to abate unlawful activity from occurring on rental properties in the city. Earlier this month, more than a dozen regional and statewide fair housing advocacy groups sent two letters to the city council alleging the ordinance violates state law and risks resident safety, namely low-income or minority residents, women and victims of domestic or sexual abuse.

The city responded to the letters saying the proposed policy wasn’t violating state law, and included protections to ensure victims or witnesses of crimes would not be subject to punitive measures.

Since September, the city has maintained that the ordinance offers both tenant and landlord protections, all while beefing up regulations.

David Jacobson, a local landlord and former DeKalb 1st Ward alderman, urged the City Council to postpone Monday’s vote and tweak the ordinance.

“It is clear that if this thing is going to work it needs to be fair, reasonable, honest and inclusive, and I can’t fathom that a single one of you elected would disagree that those would be the hallmarks of a quote unquote good law,” Jacobson said. “The draft before you tonight is not that. … While the city has the opportunity to genuinely work in partnership with the good landlords of our community, unfortunately, at this point we’re just not there.”

Will Heinisch of the DeKalb Area Rental Association said he feels confident in the landlords that he represents that they will feel supported by the city under this new ordinance.

“The majority of the DARA landlords are neutral-to-supportive of this,” Henisch said. “I don’t think everybody’s ever going to be able to come to the table and we all agree on the same thing. There’s just too much disparity, even within the state law. But I would like to see this move forward.”

Third Ward Alderman Tracy Smith, who is a retired DeKalb police officer, said he believes the ordinance could have a positive impact on the city’s crime and safety issues.

“I think the key here … is just communication,” Smith said. “I think landlords want to reach out to us. I think, at least in my years, that it was always great to have them on your side in my career in law enforcement. … I think that’s what we’re after. Just a sheer ‘Don’t slam the door in my face.’ I never had that with landlords currently in town.”

City Manager Bill Nicklas said he appreciates the candor provided by those sharing input on the crime-free housing ordinance.

“I’d be the first to admit that we’ve come a long way since Sept. 16 when the first very rough draft was revealed,” Nicklas said.

Nicklas gave thanks to all the landlords who helped shape the crime-free housing ordinance as presented in its final form.

“In the spirit of cooperation, you helped us make this a better law,” Nicklas said. “We are at that point where we ought to give it a try. Maybe we’ll look back and think of some things later on we do a little bit better if we did a bit more. But I think this is in good shape and ready to go.”