After a house fire last month left a man in critical condition, the Highland Park City Council quickly moved toward licensing landlords and educating them and their tenants to help prevent similar tragedies.
"This is about keeping people safe and holding landlords accountable as human beings keeping other human beings safe," Mayor Nancy Rotering said.
At a recent Committee of the Whole meeting, the Highland Park City Council approved drafting an ordinance requiring landlords of single-family homes to register with the city.
Officials said they'll probably also create a program to educate both landlords and tenants of their rights and responsibilities, though the scope of that program is being discussed.
Last month, a fire in the 500 block of Glenview Avenue renewed urgency among city officials for landlord registration, which has been discussed off and on since spring.
An electric space heater was determined to be the cause of the fire, but city officials said the house, which did not have working smoke detectors, had people living in makeshift bedrooms in the basement — both of which violate city code.
One tenant from the Glenview Avenue house fire remains hospitalized in critical condition, Fire Chief Patrick Tanner said at the recent meeting.
"Fire Chief Tanner said we were this close to having 10 fatalities in that house," Rotering said. "That's not OK."
After a subsequent city inspection of the property, citations were issued for code violations — including for not having working smoke detectors and for having created makeshift bedrooms in the basement — to the two LLC companies, Greenbay Road LLC and Laurel Terrace LLC, managing two separate units at 581 Glenview Avenue, according to Scott Moe, Highland Park Building Division manager.
Moe said officials with the companies said they intend to appeal the citations. The city issued the citations to the LLCs, instead of the property owner, as per the recommendation of legal counsel.
Representatives of Laurel Terrace LLC and Greenbay Road LLC could not be immediately reached for comment.
A landlord registration system will give city officials a way to contact property owners if an inspection is needed or in the event of an emergency, Moe said.
"If we had a direct link to the property owners, whatever problems there may be would tend to get mitigated much, much faster," Moe said.
Highland Park has property maintenance and housing codes, but enforcement is tricky, Moe has said.
As it is now, inspections of rental dwellings generally are triggered by tenant complaints, field observations of the building's exterior or when an owner requests a permit for a building addition.
The City Council stopped short of requiring landlords to apply for a license, a measure that would require more administration for the city and more inspections for property owners.
Inspections don't necessarily prevent violations, Moe said, because the city has to give notice.
"Needless to say, once these landlords or managers are aware of our concerns, the cleanup happens in Godspeed," he said.
In some cases, that also means tenants are displaced.
"What happens to the families?" Rotering said.
"I don't know what happens to the families," Moe said. "I don't know."
Not displacing tenants who need affordable housing while also ensuring safety will continue to be a challenge, Rotering said. Fines for non-registration, the amounts of which are yet to be determined, could be put toward finding affordable housing for those displaced.
While the full scope of the educational component hasn't been decided, a city effort to educate landlords and tenants on their respective rights and responsibilities could go a long way toward solving problems, said Community Development Director Joel Fontane.
"I think most people want to comply with the law but they're ignorant of the law," Fontane said. "I think great gains could be made in terms of knowledge and more responsibility for these folks."