BELLEVILLE — Two alderwomen question whether the city is being too intrusive by requiring residents to report occupancy changes, such as the addition of a newborn.
"I think it's unreasonable for the city to know every single occupant," Ward 2 Alderwoman Melinda Hult said. "I think it's intrusive government. I am not pleased with it."
Residents of single or multi-family dwellings must file occupancy permits that ask for the name, relationship and date of birth of all residents in a household. Residents also are supposed to immediately tell the city about any changes.
The City Council will soon vote whether to make amendments to the city's codes to make it more clear that only residents identified on the permit are allowed to live in that dwelling.
In June, St. Clair County Associate Judge Julie Katz ruled in favor of defendant Lee Otis Griffin in a city occupancy code case where the city said the defendant allowed someone to live at his residence without being listed on the occupancy permit.
Griffin's attorney in that case, Ralph Derango Jr., previously said the judge couldn't enforce the ordinance because it was vague and didn't provide a timeline for when someone needs to get a permit in Griffin's situation, where the person previously was on the permit but moved away.
Aldermen also will decide whether to give residents more time to comply in any case where the birth of a child causes the household to violate the maximum occupancy allowance. Residents would have until one year after such birth to get an updated occupancy permit.
Still, some aldermen question why the city gathers such information in the first place.
Ward 7 Alderwoman Lillian Schneider said the ordinance violates the privacy of residents.
Sometimes, the birth of a child, adoption or legal guardianship issues are personal matters, she added. A family could be taking in a child after a parent's death or it could be a teen giving birth.
"When someone buys a home, it's their home," Schneider said. "A person's home is their business unless they're doing something criminal."
Mayor Mark Eckert and Bob Sabo, the director of health, housing, building and zoning, said the codes are in place for health and safety concerns.
"We're not against anybody, landlords or renters," Eckert said. "On the same token, they have to follow the rules ... And certainly, we're not against a person having a child. We just want to ensure there's healthy, adequate space for the child to grow."
The codes are meant to address issues such as unsafe living conditions when many people live in a space that's too small or residents take in renters, Eckert said.
Sabo said he has been to homes where young children are sleeping on floors or neighbors are complaining of increased foot and motor traffic because more people than authorized are living in one house.
"When people don't do the right things and follow safety rules, it affects neighbors and has a negative impact on their property," Eckert said. "The public is putting pressure on aldermen and the city to react."
During the last several Ordinance and Legal Review Committee meetings, Hult and Schneider proposed various hypothetical scenarios for aldermen to think about.
For example, Schneider asked: If a couple buys a home intending to have one child -- and still comply with occupancy codes -- but ends up having twins, will they be forced to move?
Schneider said it's unreasonable for the city to force the couple to sell the home and move.
"How are they going to sell a house unless they keep this ordinance hidden?" Schneider said.
Hult asked if the city expects households to report whenever an elderly person stays temporarily with their children or parents have a child home from college.
"This is where it gets fuzzy," Hult said.
Ward 8 Alderman James Musgrove said that in most situations the stays are temporary and go unchecked unless the resident causes a problem.
Ward 1 Alderman Ken Kinsella said it is the city's business. The information helps in the event of an emergency, code violation or crime.
"The average citizen wants the police to be able to go to a house and know who and how many people live there," Kinsella said.
Kinsella said the alderwomen have a right to disagree with what's on the books. He said it's difficult to write laws that are perfect and addresses every scenario -- that's what judges are for.
Kinsella said the proposed change is more liberal than current city codes and gives families more time.
Earlier this month, the Ordinance and Legal Review Committee voted 3-2 to send the proposal to the full City Council for a final vote. Schneider and Hult voted no. Kinsella, Musgrove and Ward 6 Alderman Dave Martinson voted yes.
Sabo said some families decide to build an addition to the home while others ask for more time to find a place to relocate.
Sabo said 99 percent of overcrowding checks are done after the city receives a complaint.
Inspections also are done whenever there is a new occupant; subsequent inspections are not done until there is a change in occupancy. Some homes go uninspected for occupancy limits for 15 years, Sabo said.
During an inspection, a code enforcement officer measures the size of each room. The city then uses guidelines from the 2003 International Property Maintenance Code to determine how many residents could safely stay in each room.
The 2006 international code doesn't include a person per room size guideline and instead states that each bedroom should be a minimum of 70-square-feet. Sabo said the city continues to use the 2003 international code as a guide.
A room that is 70-square-feet should only have one occupant; a room that is 100-square-feet can have two people. After that, another person can be added to the room for every additional 50-square-feet.
Sabo said the property maintenance code gives city officials the flexibility to make judgment calls and officials have granted variances in some circumstances to allow additional people.
Residents in violation are fined $100. Owners are charged $250 for the first offense and $1,000 for the second offense.
Ed Yohnka, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, said the government has a myriad of ways to gather information about family structures, so the city needs a compelling reason to ask residents to go to City Hall to register a child's name.
The ACLU has seen a proliferation of such laws nationwide -- some under the guise of safety, housing and anti-crime regulations, but sometimes city officials just want a mechanism to enter a home or look inside.
Yohnka said it's a dangerous trend when cities begin to use civil laws as a way to circumvent the need for a criminal warrant.
Yohnka also said that sometimes the laws inadvertently affect residents of different cultures who tend to live in multi-generational housing arrangements. In this economy, some families also come together as a cost-saving effort.
"You want to make sure you're not using these laws to punish people or single people out for making life choices about living arrangements that others of us might not agree with or think is suitable," Yohnka said.
Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/BNDBelleville.