In response to student uproar and confusion Evanston’s “three-unrelated” law, First Ward Alderman Judy Fiske held a conversation with first ward residents at the Evanston Public Library Sunday evening. She spent two hours addressing residents’ concerns — stronger town-gown communication, landlord responsibility and evictions. A handful of students and one non-student resident attended the meeting.
Fiske said she does not refer to the ordinance as the “brothel law,” calling it inaccurate and sensational. The law prohibits three unrelated people from living together in the same residence. She said that the ordinance was discussed at a November meeting that 50 students attended, and that she noticed no dissent from students about enforcing the ordinance for safety purposes.
“I don’t know what happened. I don’t know why we suddenly flipped to this past week,” Fiske said. “The city’s position is that we’ve always had this ordinance and we’ve always enforced this ordinance, especially when it affected the immediate safety of students.”
The alderman said that the city’s intention is not to evict students, but to place responsibility on landlords. She mentioned landlords “who were chopping up apartments and putting kids in pantries and dining rooms and closets” to make more money. She said the city can’t step up enforcement efforts, nor have they ever done so. They rely on resident complaints and address imminent dangers, such as a lack of proper emergency exits.
“We’re not Big Brother. We’re not trying to make anybody’s lives more difficult,” Fiske said. “We’re trying to keep everybody safe.”
To her knowledge, she said, no student has ever been turned out of a unit for violations — but, while the city will not evict residents, landlords can. She encouraged students to understand their leases and to be wary of any landlord who will not go through the process of obtain a lodging house license, which could allow more students to live in a unit as a special use. The license costs landlords a minimal yearly fee of $166 and requires yearly inspections.
Fiske also denied that the ordinance came into question recently because of resident complaints about off-campus students. As a long-term Evanston resident, she doesn’t notice much tension beyond occasional noise complaints.
“Those of us who live in this neighborhood have coexisted really well with Northwestern students for years,” Fiske said. “We need to work together to dispel this myth that residents don’t like you, don’t welcome you, are out to get you.”
School of Communication junior Josh Brechner appreciated Fiske’s willingness to explain the city’s stance on the issue. He is still concerned that some community members might use the issue as a way to drive students from off-campus housing.
“It’d be nice for the students to have a meeting with some of these community members,” he said. “I think [Fiske] tried really hard to make sure we got to the bottom of what our concerns are.”
Fiske also addressed communication between students and city government. She emphasized the importance of meeting with students face-to-face, rather than following online forums or relying on media. City officials struggle to keep up with the speed at which students generate, discuss and interpret information online, she said, and sometimes the media misinterprets officials’ original intent.
“We can’t really talk over the Internet,” she said. “You don’t really get a dialogue going as you do in person.”
She said that the current violations are not being enforced until the end of the academic year to avoid student evictions. She said the law is to provide for safe, adequate and healthful housing. The city will follow up with landlords on previously issued violations and continue to respond to resident complaints if housing is inadequate or dangerous. The city is willing to evaluate and improve the effectiveness of the law, she said, but she felt its basic purpose was important.
“Landlords need to be responsible for renting out safe and healthful units,” she said. “You can stand up and say, ‘we expect this to be a safe building.’ The city is a resource to ensure that safety.”