By Bob Seidenberg
A city committee on May 16 backed a number of potential changes to the Residential Landlord-Tenant Ordinance sought by tenants’ groups, such as using screening tools other than credit reports to assess renters’ ability to afford apartments.
The city’s Housing and Community Development Committee didn’t take a formal vote, but Council Member Eleanor Revelle (7th Ward), committee chair, summed up members’ views as “very supportive of moving ”in the direction of looking for alternatives to how the present system works.
The review is in response to studies indicating that rents in Evanston are up 17% from 2022 and evictions are reaching pre-pandemic levels.
High housing costs disproportionately affect Black and Hispanic/Latino households, Lindsey Wade, housing and economic development analyst for the city, told committee members
Meanwhile, with the city’s residential vacancy rate at less than 10%, “it is critical the City of Evanston consider adding modernized, systemic, low-cost, high-impact policies to its Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance,” she said.
Committee members showed support at the May 16 meeting for several measures.
Fair and compliant housing
Some tools now in use to screen tenants are inaccurate and noncompliant, a staff report said. These tools remove more than half of would-be renters from consideration, according to the staff report.
The committee discussed exploring tools such as are used in Portland, Oregon, the State of Indiana and other places that would enable landlords to “screen in” rather than “screen out.”
Screening in would ask landlords to eliminate blanket rent-to-income ratio requirements. Instead, all sources of income – wages, child support, SNAP (food stamp) benefits, state TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) – would be taken into account.
Council members Devon Reid (8th Ward) and Bobby Burns (5th Ward), the two renters on the committee, spoke strongly in support of such a change.
“I’ve never had a residential rental provider that asked me about any of those sources,” Reid said.
“I do think that a blanket credit score of 700, 650, 625 is not a great way to determine someone’s ability to pay,” he added.
It’s almost like some landlords, they’re shopping around – right? – and they’re just using credit scores,” he said. “I know some people who are doing more than that –discriminating based on race sometimes, too. So there’s a lot going on, but especially with the credit scores, because they [landlords] don’t have to take you.”
“One thing that’s good about being in Evanston,” Burns added, “is people want to live here and in every corner of Evanston someone wants to live here. So what I find is that landlords are sitting back and waiting to find the right tenant. And if they are basing it on an individualized assessment that was comprehensive, great. But when it’s just the scores – which, again, from the feedback I’m getting is what we’re seeing the most, especially when someone’s displaced – I am [against it],” he said.
Hugo Rodriguez, another committee member, agreed that what is needed is an individualized analysis of what “caused a family’s credit score to be low and get to that determination.”
He said the reason income-to-rent “is relevant to a landlord is because, if I take 50% of that family’s income to pay for my rent, what are they [the renters] living on? Because the income used is the gross income of that family. So they have to pay taxes, they have to pay transportation, gasoline, clothing, food, as well as shelter. So if I don’t have that ratio in my mind, these people make $5,000 a month, how am I going to charge them $2,500 for rent?”
Sarah Flax, the city’s community development director, said officials are examining systems where credit ratings are not the only source, noting the U.S. Government Accountability Office has been looking at the issue.