Belleville OKs controversial crime-free housing ordinance

News-DemocratSeptember 16, 2013 

Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert in a 2013 file photo.

ZIA NIZAMI — znizami@bnd.com

Belleville City Council members on Monday approved a crime-free housing ordinance for the city with a 13-3 vote.

The city has been holding discussions since 2011 on whether to implement the national program to lower crime in rental housing.

Landlords now have until Nov. 1 to take a training class on the crime-free housing program. Landlords do not have to take the class if they already are certified from other metro-east cities with existing crime-free programs.

The crux of the ordinance requires landlords to register their rental units for a $25 annual fee; run criminal background checks on potential tenants over 18; and make an effort to evict tenants charged with crimes.

Ward 2 Alderwoman Melinda Hult, Ward 7 Alderman Trent Galetti and Alderwoman-at-Large Lillian Schneider voted "no."

Before the vote, the council heard from residents, landlords and aldermen about the proposed ordinance. At least seven residents spoke in favor of the ordinance and at least eight expressed an opinion against it.

Some speakers questioned the legality of the ordinance, and said it unfairly targets black renters and does not give landlords much recourse.

City Attorney Garrett Hoerner says the ordinance is constitutional, valid and enforceable and does not require landlords to do anything that would violate fair-housing rules.

Other speakers, including representatives of the Greater Belleville Chamber of Commerce, said it's time for the city to have a program to protect the quality of life for Belleville residents and address safety issues in neighborhoods that stem from renters.

Belleville landlord Kevin Fernandez, however, told the council that his rental units have no problems, and the crime-free housing plan would ultimately hurt the majority of landlords and tenants who are not causing issues.

Resident Rose Wilson reminded council members that Belleville is not the only city to consider a crime-free housing program. The program has been passed by other metro-east communities and it has been credited with helping to lower crime in rental housing in those communities.

Belleville resident Lee Otis Griffin said the ordinance discriminates against black residents and will present lots of problems down the road for the city. He made yet another plea for the city to hire more black employees.

Later in the meeting, Ward 2 Alderwoman Janet Schmidt said the city should use the crime-free housing plan, if passed, as a chance to hire minorities.

Right before the vote, Ward 5 Alderman Joe Hayden tried to make two amendments to the ordinance: To remove the $25 annual registration fee and to exempt landlords from doing background checks on family members. The council voted against both of Hayden's proposals.

Ward 1 Alderman Ken Kinsella objected to Hayden's amendments, stating the crime-free housing task force already spent the past year heavily weighing such issues before finalizing the proposal before council.

And, Ward 4 Alderman Jim Davidson asked whether the city would be able to hire a full-time police officer dedicated to the crime-free program without the fee.

Eckert estimated it would cost about $85,000 for salary, benefits and training to hire the officer.

The 2010 census found 7,274 rental units in Belleville, with 876 that were vacant. Mandatory registration of these units would bring in at least $138,075 per year, which will go directly to running the program.

Also on Monday:

* The council approved sending letters of support to area legislators in support of a national F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter Program. Some aldermen questioned why the city was essentially "lobbying" for a program officials knew little about and is not directly located at Scott Air Force Base.

Eckert said he and other metro-east leaders heard from Jeff Dixon, the son of former U.S. Sen. Alan Dixon, asking for support of the program. Eckert said the program impacts 2,000 jobs in Illinois and will have a residual effect on Scott Air Force Base.

* The Police Department recognized the Belleville Animal Clinic for providing the city's police dog with more than $15,000 in free services over time, including free pet care, heartworm medication, bulletproof vests and more.

Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at jlee@bnd.com or 239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BNDBelleville.

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