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Oswego mayor begins campaign against 'slum lords'

Payne Horning
Oswego Mayor Billy Barlow asks the city's Common Council to enact several rental code changes he's proposing to crack down on negligent landlords.

Delivering on one of his signature campaign promises, Oswego Mayor Billy Barlow is targeting so-called slum lords. He has added two new code enforcers and started conducting what he calls a blitz of rental property inspections. 

"Word has gotten out that we’re not messing around," Barlow said. "We’re not doing these behind the scenes deals, 'Take care of it in 3 days and maybe we’ll be back and maybe we won't.' Those days are gone."

Barlow now wants the code enforcement department to be allowed to conduct hearings on unsafe properties where it could order them to be fixed, vacated or condemned. He also wants to raise the rental permit fee from $30 for a three-year permit to $150, which on an annual basis would increase from $10 per unit to $50. He said that could help equip the code enforcement department with the tools and personnel they need.

"It takes so much time and energy and resources to put together a thorough and viable code case to take to court and even when it gets to court, it’s slapped with a small fee that we don’t think is adequate enough to get a real reaction out of the landlords," Barlow said. "We feel like right now we’re just spinning our wheels in the mud."

But some landlords, like Debra Engleke, say that's just going to hurt the tenants.

"They’re going to have to shift the costs to their tenants," Engleke said. "For some college students who are working their own way through college, that’s going to be difficult. They may live in a lesser apartment."

Engleke said the city should raise penalties on the guilty parties rather than the permit fee for all landlords. 

Other landlords, like Paul Stewart, praised the plan. Stewart is also the executive director of the Oswego Renaissance Association, which renovates derelict properties. He said blighted houses can significantly drag down property values in some neighborhoods. 

"Everything we can do to grow the confidence to invest in our blocks is a good thing and code enforcement has been that one piece that for a very long time - decades -  has been neglected in this city and we believe it is absolutely time to change that," Stewart said. "There are expenses to the permitting process, there are expenses involved in code enforcement department and it is our responsibility to support those efforts."

Barlow said those expenses to process rental permit applications have outpaced the $30 fee. He estimates the administrative cost is somewhere around $75-$80. 

The Oswego Common Council tabled the proposals at its meeting Monday night, as some of the councilors were concerned that Barlow's proposed increase is too steep. 

"It’s a drastic jump," Council Chairman Shawn Walker said. "Five times is an awful lot."

The last time the city changed the rental permit fee was in 2005. 

Payne Horning is a reporter and producer, primarily focusing on the city of Oswego and Oswego County. He has a passion for covering local politics and how it impacts the lives of everyday citizens. Originally from Iowa, Horning moved to Muncie, Indiana to study journalism, telecommunications and political science at Ball State University. While there, he worked as a reporter and substitute host at Indiana Public Radio. He also covered the 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly for the statewide Indiana Public Broadcasting network.