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A Divided Rental License Aims to Solve Slumlord Problem in Carbondale

The sign outside Carbondale City Hall building
City of Carbondale

The Condition of Carbondale

Leaking roofs dripping down into a stain left on the carpet. Siding and gutters hanging onto homes anticipating a fall at any time. Chills throughout the winter and blistering heat in the summer with no vents to provide relief. This is the state of some rental properties within Carbondale, Illinois. Some residents have lived in such harsh conditions, they have been forced to break leases and leave town for good.

“There have been roaches infesting my apartment for eight months. The whole building is infested,” Victor Ludwig, a former resident of Carbondale said at a city council meeting in February. “I have to lock all of my food in plastic bins, I can’t leave a single thing out for five minutes, and when I cook I can’t leave the kitchen. I have to watch water boil, so that I can live safely, happily, and healthy.”

While this is a recent issue for Ludwig, the core problem has been happening for many years. Many have had to deal with slumlords in Carbondale leading the city council to discuss the possibility of a landlord license to raise the quality of housing, but it’s been strongly opposed by many landlords and stalled in the wake of controversy. While actions are now being taken, many have struggled waiting for it.

A Struggling Populous

Brittany Rhea, a resident of Carbondale, had her fair share of issues with a rental property seven years ago.

“I lived there and didn’t even finish out my lease. There was mold. There were ceiling tiles falling into the bathroom. There was a ceiling tile that fell into my kids' room. There were rodents living there. It was awful” Rhea said.

After reviewing hundreds of rental inspection documents from just last year, many homes were flagged for missing doors, damaged decks, having holes in the walls, and having very limited air conditioning systems. This has driven many to leave Carbondale, even if they love the city.

“Now I am moving out of Carbondale because I can’t find a place to live here that is safe. It really breaks my heart to have to leave but that’s why” Ludwig said.

Some Hope Brewing in Carbondale

Some have been unable to find quality housing in Carbondale, but others have also had better luck. After moving out of her apartment seven years ago, Rhea says she was lucky to find a landlord like Dan Parish whom she has rented from ever since.

“He’s been really good to us, especially through COVID. He took over some other properties and has been updating them and is doing a real good job. He only raised my rent $200. It went from $700 to $900 which is unheard of for a four-bedroom in Carbondale” Rhea said.

Rhea currently lives with her husband, her five kids, and her dad. While it can be hard to find a rental property to accommodate that many people, she says Parish has done everything he can to help her out.

“I’ve been late on my rent almost consistently since COVID happened. I am the only one working since my husband is disabled. We are waiting for disability checks to come in for that but he [Parish] has helped us find resources where we can get food, rental assistance, electric assistance, and all kinds of resources” Rhea said.

Housing has become such a widespread issue that many have lost hope in finding somewhere livable in Carbondale. However, there are many landlords still trying to provide quality housing to their tenants and make Carbondale a city worth living in. Harold Visser, a landlord of over twenty properties in Carbondale, says he prides himself on being a landlord who communicates with his tenants.

“A lot of times when people have a problem they just want to know someone is listening and someone can take care of it. Then just find a solution to the problem whether it be they got locked out or your water heating is not working or the neighbors dog is barking. It’s almost like good customer service and renters are your customers” Visser said.

Leslie Cuttler, a current 69-year-old tenant of Visser, says he is one of the best landlords anyone can get in Carbondale. Things may not always be perfect, but she holds Visser in high regard.

“God bless Harold because when he does repairs he is like a wrong way Corrigan you know? He fixes the refrigerator but then the door falls off on 70-year-old me. He fixes something but forgets to turn the electricity back on. But, Herald's heart is in the right place and he is a great guy, "Cuttler said.

Many landlords are also working towards providing the needs and services that their tenants need. Dan Schwartz, who owns four rental mobile home communities in Carbondale, says landlords like himself can’t forget about the community while running their business.

“If you focus in on your community and you focus on the wellness of your people and the experience they are having with you, ultimately, you will be in a stronger position,” Schwartz said.

He says he listens to his community and tries to stay as connected as he can. Schwartz is a resident of Chicago but travels to Carbondale once a week to check in on things.

“I drove every week from Chicago. Six hours each way in the winter or summer, didn't make a difference. I was here every single week getting to know people. I think that’s really important. There's that sense that we are in this together” Schwartz said.

A Troubled Past

Like Visser, Schwartz is always a call away and ready to help with any issues that come up. While there are landlords who have started off on the right track, there are others who are trying to course correct. Katie Hickman, a landlord for Wright Properties, says she is trying to do better after taking over part of the business.

“What we have been doing is when every renter moves out, we are completely rehabbing the house or apartments so that we would be proud of it. So that it is more acceptable for people to live in” Hickman said.

Wright Properties has been family-owned for decades and while her parents did a good job for many years, she says they struggled to keep up the quality of the business as they got older.

“Ya know, my dad has said something like his generation landlords bled the houses dry. So, they just weren’t reinvesting in them and once enrollment went down and it went from student housing to non-student housing, I feel like the incentive to fix the housing is there for the older landlords” Hickman says.

She says fixing leaky roofs has been just one of the many common issues that a lot of housing has been needing to fix, including her own. However, Hickman says she is committed to providing better housing and fixing any issues she can find.

A Divisive Solution

While she and many other landlords are striving to do better, the city wants to take things into its own hands. The Carbondale City Council is currently working on landlord licensure and landlord-tenant ordinances. Council members say that these will give the city more power to deal with landlords who are providing poor housing.

“It’s difficult in some cases to get those units up to a decent standard,” Former city manager Gary Williams said. “The thought was that being able to withhold a license and being able to revoke a license if necessary could be more of an incentive for landlords to comply with the rules and have better housing units”

Williams worked on the license and ordinance through March before leaving his position. One of the last things he was able to do for this was to pass a motion that would create a committee consisting of two council members, four representatives for landlords, four representatives for tenants, one community member who would all have a vote, and two city staff members who would not vote but rather function as support.

The council hopes this committee will be able to draft a license and ordinance that both serves landlords and tenants. However, some landlords still have concerns that the license will do more harm than good. Harold Visser, a Carbondale landlord, believes all the license will do is raise rents for tenants.

“If you look at Carbondale, it’s the most regulated, which means it’s the most expensive. Let’s say they said it’s gonna be $50 a unit, that gets passed onto my tenants because I’m running a business” Visser said.

He also says this will push out landlords into cities that make it easier to be a landlord and create a large barrier from entry for smaller landlords. While some have concerns about the license and ordinance, other landlords are for it. Katie Hickman, a landlord with Wright Properties, says it is necessary to bring properties back to a good standard.

“As long as we are doing what we are supposed to be doing, I don’t know why anyone would have an issue with it. Does it mean that we have a little more red tape or whatever? I think it is necessary because of the state of so many homes in Carbondale” Hickman.

The issue is one divided not only between landlords and tenants but divided inside those groups as well. Many are conflicted about the right course of action, but the city and its citizens are trying to resolve an issue that has left families with poor living conditions and seemingly nowhere left to turn.

Ethan Holder is a student contributor for WSIU Public Broadcasting located at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. Contact WSIU Radio at 618-453-6101 or email wsiunews@wsiu.org
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