Forest Park police spend more time responding to calls at rental properties than bars, single family homes or any other source. Some rental units have become a haven for drug and gang activity, a problem boosted by the transitory nature of tenants, police said.
In response, the police department is working to nip the problem in the bud by zeroing in on landlords who lease apartments to problem tenants.
“If we have repeat offenders, the cops are tied up more than the criminals are,” Detective Mike O’Connor said. “So what are we going to do in some of these cases? We can get them out the community. If we do that, we are going to have a lot fewer crimes committed in Forest Park. Bottom line.”
O’Connor is the coordinator of the Crime Free Multi-Housing program, which began a few months ago in Forest Park to help reduce crime and enhance the quality of life for residents. The program was developed in Mesa, Arizona in 1992 and has since been adopted in more than 2,000 cities across 44 states.
Featuring a unique concept of crime prevention, Crime Free Multi-Housing is essentially an educational program for landlords. Through multiple phases, police try to teach building owners how to prevent criminal activity on their properties. At the same time, they try to build a stronger coalition among property owners, residents and officers.
In Forest Park, there are approximately 4,212 rental housing units compared to 3,420 owner-occupied units, based on data from the 2000 census. That means more than 55 percent of property in the village is rental.
As of now, police cannot accurately calculate the total number of crime reports coming from rental properties in a year because of how its database is currently organized. The system is in the process of being updated to provide more targeted data. Even so, O’Connor recalled one particular property that generated roughly 130 calls in one year.
“That’s ridiculous,” he said. “That encouraged us to start the program.”
In getting the program running, O’Connor has been reaching out to landlords, encouraging them to come to one of his monthly informational seminars. During these presentations, O’Connor teaches landlords about proper applicant screening and how to better maintain properties. He also introduces the Crime Free Lease Addendum, which is a document the tenant must sign that says he or she will not bring crime onto the property. Therefore, if crime is later detected, it is considered a violation of the lease.
Landlords “didn’t have the means to get people out once they were having problems,” Police Chief Jim Ryan said. “They can get them out of the apartment within 30 days.”
So far, O’Connor has facilitated six to 12 evictions in Forest Park.
But an important aspect of the program is preventing problems in the first place. Many landlords have not been running proper background checks, Ryan said.
“A lot of times the landlords don’t realize what’s going on with their properties,” Ryan said. “Once the police bring it to their attention, they are pretty appreciative.”
Tameca Miles, a 35-year-old who lives and leases property on the 600 block of Elgin, has owned rental property for 10 years in Forest Park. After attending one of O’Connor’s sessions, she said she was amazed at how much she learned.
“He opened my eyes to how a predator might think or do things,” she said.
As for property maintenance, Miles has trimmed her bushes along the top and bottom so that people could see if a person was hiding behind them. She added spot lighting on the bushes, track lighting along the side of her building and repositioned her motion lights to cover the entire space. She also said she has learned to be more diligent with background checks, not just for people signing the lease, but everyone over the age of 18 that will reside in the building.
“I’m not a new renter, you would think I would know these things, but I really didn’t know all that,” she said.
Keating said that most landlords do not “realize the power they have and the potential liability they have.” Most walk away from the session very pleased with the information. But the problem is that he can’t get every landlord to attend – the program is voluntary.
“So the landlords that need it the most are the least likely to come,” he said.
For those especially problematic properties, even if police have cited the unit numerous times, the landlords “don’t care,” O’Connor said. “Nobody even reports anything.”
Based on state law, the village cannot make the program mandatory. The only way village officials would have the authority to change that is if Forest Park residents voted for home rule, which allows municipalities with a population of at least 25,000 people more freedom to tailor laws. As of 2000, Forest Park has a population of 15,688 people.
If O’Connor did have the power to mandate the program, “that would change everything,” he said.
“Renting property in my mind is a business,” he said. “We regulate businesses; I don’t understand why we can’t regulate rental properties.”
Right now his Crime Free class sizes have ranged from about two to six people. If he could get even 10 percent of landlords to come, “that would be huge.”
Though it’s too soon to tell the program’s impact on Forest Park, nationwide it is said to cause up to a 70 percent reduction in police reports on rental properties. The first challenge in Forest Park, though, is spreading the word and making sure people know the program is available.
Patrick Cerceo, owner of Circle Property Management, which has four rental buildings in Forest Park, said it is nice knowing that there is now “a direct line” to the police department. Sometimes as an owner you are never going to see the crime, he said.
“There was a lack of communication for awhile,” Cerceo said. “I think this is very good. It opens up a length of communication that may have been a little rusty.”