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Possible tenant rent increases among concerns raised for Hunter Properties, DeKalb settlement

DeKALB – One DeKalb resident is concerned that some rental property tenants would ultimately have to foot the bill for a proposed Special Service Area as part of a code violation fines settlement agreement with local landlord Hunter Properties.

Although a new lawyer representing Hunter Properties said the settlement agreement between the city and the embattled landlord isn’t finalized yet.

Pastor Joe Mitchell of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church raised the concern during a DeKalb City Council public hearing for a proposal that could mean the city’s largest landlord, Hunter Properties, pays additional property taxes that would go toward public safety costs near the Annie Glidden North neighborhood. Mitchell asked if there was any way to ensure that the SSA does not become a cost that will be passed to Hunter Properties residents by the landlord increasing rent.

“We know most of the people who live in Hunter Properties are not of the most means,” Mitchell said Monday. “And the quickest way, the easiest way for Hunter to pay for this is simply to raise those individuals’ rates.”

DeKalb City Attorney John Donahue confirmed there was nothing in state law that would prevent the owner of the properties to pass the cost onto their rentees.

City Manager Bill Nicklas previously said the city is sensitive to any possible consequences from the SSA, including tenant rent increases. He has said he hasn’t heard of that being threatened due to increased property taxes from the landlord from the proposed SSA, nor had anyone approached the city about that specific concern ahead of the Monday meeting.

Steve Bauer, attorney for Chicago law firm Meltzer, Purtill and Stelle LLC, now representing Hunter Properties, did not address tenant increase concerns during the meeting. Hunter Properties Manager Tiffany Meadows, who also attended the public hearing, did not return a request for comment.

Instead, Bauer asked that the hearing be delayed an additional 30 days, calling it premature. He said Hunter Properties retained his legal counsel days before the hearing, and that he hadn’t had opportunity to properly review relevant material for the settlement stipulations, and said there wasn’t adequate public notice given prior to Monday’s hearing.

A public notice regarding the hearing for the proposed SSA was published Sept. 25, according to the Public Notice Illinois website. The notice said a map of the proposed boundaries is on file in the city manager’s office and is available for public inspection but did not list street locations within the public notice. However, the City Council meeting packet ahead of the Monday meeting included a map of the proposed SSA boundaries.

Bauer also said, contrary to the meeting agenda, that there is no settlement agreement between the city and landlord that has actually been executed and, thus, effective, by his understanding.

“And as a result, if that’s true, there is no waiver of a right by Hunter Ridgebrook Properties to object to the proposed special service area,” Bauer said.

Nicklas said Bauer’s firm was not the one initially part of the settlement conferences on behalf of Hunter Properties. He said settlement documents do exist from when the council first considered the matter during a Sept. 14 meeting and inserting another law firm at this stage of the settlement talks sounds familiar from past interactions with the landlord.

“The insertion of a new legal firm at this stage, I think, should not be reason for the council to [delay] this,” Nicklas said. “The council can be assured, on the basis of what our city attorney has just assured me, that you are firm ground in proceeding as planned from about a month ago.”

According to city documents, the proposed SSA may not be created and no tax levied or imposed if at least 51% of residents within the proposed boundaries sign a petition against the proposal and submit it to the city clerk within 60 days of the ordinance’s approval.

Nicklas said the SSA only would apply to Hunter Properties – specifically properties near Edgebrook Drive – and the now city-owned and vacant Edgebrook Manor Apartment Complex, 912 Edgebrook Drive, which is expected to be demolished this year and turned into a park. He said the proposed SSA’s purpose is meant to remedy a problem unique to Hunter that doesn’t financially impact other property owners within the city.

If the SSA is approved, Nicklas said the city expects to get $100,000 per year from Hunter Properties. He said that additional tax revenue could go toward security cameras and other public safety measures for the area.

Nicklas had said enforcement officers, fire prevention officers and other city officials have been paying visits to properties owned by the landlord in response to more than 500 unresolved code violations involving Evanston-based Hunter Properties LLC and its subsidiaries, some dating back to 2017. He had said fines issued to the landlord totaled about $500,000 in 2018 alone.

Nicklas had said several of those citations and fines were soon due to come up again for review by a city hearing officer or through the civil court system to either get the landlord to pay the fines or comply with city orders stemming from tenant complaints about living conditions. He said the city and landlord eventually negotiated a settlement that involves the creation of a special service area and for the landlord to agree to not contest the city’s SSA, which is essentially a localized property tax levy.

The continued push for enforcement was spurred, in part, by a series of suspected arsons in the summers of 2018 and 2019 at Hunter Ridgebrook Apartment complex, 808 Ridge Drive. On July 9, 2019, a fire was ruled intentional after city crews discovered several mattresses in a third-floor common area had been lit on fire, and the subsequent incident resulted in 140 residents displaced and the building condemned.

Cooperative community calls – by city officials and the newly formed DeKalb Area Tenant Association – demanded change for the living conditions at one point referred to by Joe Mitchell as “a disgrace before God.”

Nicklas said the matter is expected to go before the City Council for a vote during the council’s Nov. 23 meeting in the Yusunas Meeting Room at the DeKalb Public Library, 309 Oak St. Participants may attend in person following public health guidelines or watch live via Channel 14 or zoom.

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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