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Latino advocacy group: Code enforcement won't prevent crowding
By Emily Krone | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 3/25/2008 5:05 PM | Updated: 3/26/2008 12:09 AM

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Aggressive code enforcement won't reduce overcrowding among Latinos living in the Chicago suburbs, a new report by a Latino advocacy group found.

"(Ramping up enforcement is) a risky and ineffective approach," stated the report released Tuesday by Chicago-based Latinos United.

"It tends to hold occupants responsible for overcrowding instead of exploitative landlords, and sends a clear message to Latinos that they are not welcome."

Moreover, the report found, tenants and homeowners can easily avoid detection by hiding evidence of the number of people living in a building.

The report said code enforcement is ineffective because it does not take into account why people live in overcrowded dwellings.

But some village officials countered with a different reason for the shortcomings of code enforcement. It fails, they say, because the law hamstrings municipalities.

"We don't have the power of the police," said Carpentersville Trustee Judy Sigwalt, a prime supporter of a village ordinance to crack down on illegal immigration. "Unfortunately, the law prohibits us from knocking on doors and saying 'I'm Mr. Code Inspector.' We can only go by the amount of cars outside and the complaints we get from other residents."

The Latinos United report focused on nine suburban communities, including Elgin, Addison and Carpentersville, with large Latino communities.

Between 1990 and 2000, the number of overcrowded dwellings increased by 118 percent in Addison, 213 percent in Carpentersville and 91 percent in Elgin, according to U.S. Census data cited in the report.

In all three communities, more than two-thirds of overcrowded homes were occupied by Latinos, according to the report.

Latinos, particularly Latino immigrants, may have a higher tolerance for living in crowded quarters, the report found. The scarcity of affordable housing in the suburbs also contributes to overcrowding.

The report concluded that occupancy codes and enforcement should be modified based on whether multiple families live under one roof because they want to, or because they have to.

But some suburban officials said code enforcement is a core responsibility of any municipality -- even if residents are overcrowded because they can't afford to live any other way.

"To be able to enforce codes is the backbone of property maintenance and property values," said Elgin Mayor Ed Schock. "The fact of the matter is, most people who live in communities are concerned about overcrowding because it affects their property values."

Schock said issues of code enforcement and affordable housing are closely linked.

"I've talked to a lot of mayors about this," Schock said. "And they will not construct more rental units or low-cost housing if they do not have the confidence that they can apply reasonable code enforcement."

The report also raised questions about whether overcrowding is actually a negative phenomenon. It pointed out that definitions of "overcrowded" are arbitrary, and the code enforcement officers interviewed for the report stated it is "not a priority safety concern."

But Sigwalt said there's no denying the deleterious effect overcrowding has on neighborhoods.

"It's a quality-of-life issue … cars parked on lawns, junk in the backyard, houses being let go," Sigwalt said. "It does bring increased crime. It overcrowds our schools. We have to hire more fire, more police. It's bleeding the American taxpayer dry."

The report recommended a series of steps to address overcrowding. The suggestions included new efforts to educate the Latino community about housing regulations.

Addison Mayor Larry Hartwig agreed education must go hand-in-hand with enforcement.

"I think what we're trying to do is put more emphasis up-front on education, so when you purchase a house, you're educated on what the expectations are for taking care of that house," Hartwig said. "We're not going to stop code enforcement. But you can't just do enforcement."

Schock said he concurred with the suggestion that groups of stakeholders should review and revise code enforcement policies.

"There's going to have to be some way to enforce codes, without being afraid HUD or some other nonprofit is going to drag you into court," Schock said.

Municipalities that zealously enforce codes risk being slapped with a discrimination lawsuit.

In 1998, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development alleged Elgin's housing inspection practices discriminated against Latinos. The city eventually agreed to pay more than $500,000 and overhaul some inspection practices in order to settle the matter.