UPDATED 1:45 p.m. | Bloomington aldermen signaled Monday they want the city to clamp down harder on landlords with chronic code violations in the wake of the Gettysburg Drive apartment fire.
The Bloomington City Council got an update on the rental inspection program, which has two inspectors covering 12,000 units. Working on a pass/fail system, the city aims for compliance over punishment, often waiving fines once a landlord addresses a violation. The city uses its own administrative court and sometimes civil litigation to address problem properties.
City staff asked aldermen “how much of an appetite” they have for a more aggressive approach to fines, particularly for chronic violators. The Feb. 10 fire on Gettysburg Drive has put rental properties in the spotlight, largely because the 12-unit apartment building had accumulated hundreds of violations. A city push to demolish it was pending when the fire broke out.
Alderman Amelia Buragas said the city’s inspection program has improved significantly since 2015 when a second inspector was hired. Now it’s time to increase fines and consider other changes to address the small number of repeat offenders, she said.
“There, as a city, our patience needs to run very thin and cannot be infinite,” said Buragas. “Because we have people who are living in our community in substandard conditions, and that’s just not acceptable.”
Historically, the city’s goal has been compliance, meaning fines are routinely waived and re-inspection timelines extended if there are not urgent life-safety issues, city officials said.
The city has already begun tightening those practices. As of Jan. 1, the city stopped waiving the $110-per-case administrative court fee, no matter of the outcome of the violation.
City officials are already preparing a draft of ordinance changes to address chronic problem landlords, like those with more than one violation within a year on a single property, said city attorney Jeff Jurgens.
“There is some movement we can make within the administrative court to perhaps start imposing a few more fines,” Jurgens said.
Speaking during public comment, landlord John Capodice urged aldermen to give Bloomington’s Property Maintenance Review Board more influence over the city’s rental inspection program. The board is comprised of landlords, contractors, and tenants.
Capodice, who chairs the board, said the panel is sometimes left paralyzed by a lack of attendees, or quorum. Adding more landlords to the board would help, he said.
“(Safety) is where this inspection program needs to be focused,” Capodice said.
Many issues facing low-income tenants were documented in GLT’s 2017 investigative series Landlord v. Tenant, focusing on the community’s aging stock of affordable housing.
Friends of the BCPA
Meanwhile, aldermen voted 7-2 to approve a five-year agreement that establishes a public-private partnership between the city and the Friends of the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts (BCPA), a nonprofit organization led by private citizens invested in the arts.
Supporters hope the agreement will jump-start what they see as stalled progress on improving the BCPA, the Creativity Center, and related programming. The agreement calls for the city to fund the partial salary and benefits for a development director for the BCPA—already part of the city’s budget but left vacant for years—with the Friends of the BCPA picking up more and more of that cost each year through 2024. That person would raise money for the BCPA and Creativity Center.
Speaking Tuesday on GLT's Sound Ideas, Mayor Tari Renner called the agreement long overdue. He said improving the northern edge of downtown is a priority.
"That is a critical coordidor," Renner said. "It's about economic development."
Aldermen Diana Hauman and David Sage voted against the agreement. Hauman said she supports the arts but says the city has more pressing spending priorities, such as streets.
“Where do we draw the line and say we can’t be all things to all people?” she said.
Buragas praised the city’s Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Arts department for its strong track record of cost-recovery, or bringing in revenue to pay for operations. She said the new agreement continues that by hiring a fundraiser who will bring in more revenue.
“Generally in philosophy, this agreement fits so many of the things as a city we want to accomplish,” Buragas said. “Underfunding community assets is not to our benefit.”
Renner acknowledged the Bloomington City Council has a long history of slow decision-making, including on the BCPA and Creativity Center. He said one thing that might help is for aldermen to network more within the Illinois Municipal League and National League of Cities, to get a "broader comparative base" ahead of votes.
"There are times when you need to stretch things out or need time to digest something. But that doesn’t have to be everything. (Solid waste program changes) took us seven years. That doesn’t have to be part of your culture," Renner said. "That culture is beginning to change."
Towanda Barnes and Ireland Grove
In other action, aldermen approved spending $370,000 on a downsized version of a major revamp of the Towanda Barnes and Ireland Grove intersection on the city’s far east side.
This latest iteration of the project will only make changes to Towanda Barnes Road, including a southbound free-flow right turn lane. The changes should reduce peak-time backups from over 4 minutes to 45-55 seconds or less. The project, being done in partnership with McLean County, will no longer address east/west backups on Ireland Grove.
Public Works Director Jim Karch said the city expects to do the construction this year.
The McLean County Board's Transportation Committee will consider the revised project scope during a meeting Tuesday afternoon.
You can also listen to GLT's full interview with Renner:
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