Evanston’s enforcement of the brothel law is not due to the city’s genuine regard for safety, according to a Massachusetts professor speaking at the Evanston Public Library Wednesday.
Several state and local housing organizations joined forces to sponsor the lecture by Dr. Ellen Pader, which focused on Evanston’s three-unrelated person rule. Pader, an associate professor of regional planning at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, argued during the public presentation that the newly-enforced law is borne out of cultural and moral prejudice as opposed to safety.
The professor diagrammed the difference between the community’s actual physical safety and its “emotional safety,” a term she used to describe how comfortable residents are with the people living in their neighborhood. The main reason why stringent occupancy laws are in effect, she said, is a lasting stigma against crowded spaces that’s rooted in “old upper-class English values.”
“Building codes are important, but they’re really there to protect the dominant culture’s moral and emotional values—not physical safety,” Pader said. “By saying that only three people can live in a house, we’re ensuring that people with lesser economic means won’t get the chance they deserve and won’t be able to contribute to society.”
Pader even said the ordinance was “un-American, thumbing [its] nose at the values of the Pledge of Allegience.”
The frenzied question-and-answer segment following Pader’s presentation highlighted an audience still deeply divided over the issue. While many audience members voiced equal opposition to the law, others said her lecture avoided the important questions.
“The issue is the national binge drinking epidemic that’s turning our formerly respectable neighborhoods into student slums,” one audience member said.
“I’m not trying to minimize the problems of people in town here,” Pader responded. “But there’s no reason to believe that having four people in a home instead of three constitutes squalor.”
She added that the community may hold a negative stereotype against students and other non-traditional residents, saying that occupancy laws are little more than “a tool the government gets to use to keep neighborhoods pleasant.”
The event was sponsored by eight housing and civil rights organizations including the Illinois Association of REALTORS, the Evanston Property Owners' Association and the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law.
Howard Handler, local governmental affairs director for the Illinois Association of REALTORS, played a principal role in garnering support for the event.
“There’s been a lot of shouting going on,” he said. “We just wanted to bring in an academic perspective to show people what this issue is about.”
The issues raised by the brothel law not only affect residents and realtors, but also the economy at large, Handler said.
“This ordinance pushes a lot of students out into non-traditional neighborhoods and increases student housing costs,” he said. “Then people will disinvest from properties, which will worsen blight and lead to more foreclosures in town.”
Handler added that local housing associations must “jump-start discussion” on housing ordinances such as the "brothel law" so as to avoid community outcry as seen in January, when the "brothel law" first came into the university spotlight.
“The real estate community needs to reach out to residents, the university and students so we can get to the root of the problems here,” Handler said. “We want to address these issues now so they’re not swept under the rug and then primed to explode again."