City Watch: Hastily passed city ordinance is a nuisance

Scott Gordon

Anyone who’s ever watched the Evanston City Council or any of its committees in action knows they can be a tedious bunch.

If you want to obtain a liquor license for your business, build an extension on a house in a historic district or do anything else that requires city approval, you should expect to listen to the city’s aldermen spend hours nitpicking and fumbling around to figure out what’s going on. Eventually, they’ll arrive at a solution with plenty of fine print involved. The aldermen don’t want to leave any loose ends or opportunities for future trouble. In short, when the city government regulates, it tends to regulate quite meticulously.

Which makes me wonder why the aldermen weren’t sharper in November 2002, when they drafted and passed the city’s “Nuisance Premises” ordinance, which as it turns out is rather open-ended. The ordinance is specific about how a property becomes a nuisance premise, but doesn’t specify how a property can rid itself of the label.

Currently, the city considers 10 properties — nine of which are, for the most part, occupied by students — as nuisance premises. The ordinance allows the Chief of Police to designate as a “nuisance” any property where one felony or two or more misdemeanor offenses occur within six months. This basically means these properties’ landlords and tenants are in a tricky spot with the city. Landlords can face fines of up to $750 and tenants might have to be evicted if further violations occur.

While working on a story last year about students in nuisance properties, I heard all sorts of strange rumors that suggested nobody — students, police or city officials — fully understood how the ordinance is supposed to work. Several students in nuisance residences told me police officers are required to ticket them each time they receive a noise complaint about the properties — even if the complaint turns out to be unfounded.

The ordinance specifies no such requirement. In fact, it provides very little direction for the handling of nuisance premises, and that is what’s causing all the confusion. Right now, the terms of the law provide something resembling a solution for officials and residents upset at students’ behavior — which, with some notable exceptions, is only mildly obnoxious — and indefinite legal hassles for everyone else involved. Since the legal burden is technically supposed to fall on the landlord, tenants in these properties usually are cut out of the loop. At least, the ones I’ve talked to haven’t been given much actual information about the ordinance.

Chief Frank Kaminski of Evanston Police Department has told The Daily on several occasions that he tries to enforce the ordinance in a fair manner. He has handled it in a pretty reasonable and consistent manner — but until the law is amended, it’s going to depend entirely on his judgment.

Ald. Edmund Moran (6th), who voted against the ordinance, said the enforcement process should be in the hands of a judge rather than members of city government, who he says could be influenced by officials with their own “agendas.”

Moran also said the ordinance punishes landlords under the assumption that they actually know of or encourage tenants’ disruptive behavior.

The city was hasty and irresponsible in passing this ordinance, and in all likelihood was going through one of its usual vengeful overreactions to students’ storied misbehavior. This law is almost childishly punitive and puts managers and students at the mercy of neighbors who often are too quick to complain about noise.

And the hassles of the nuisance designation are passed on to new tenants who had nothing to do with the original violations.

Deputy City Editor Scott Gordon is a Medill junior. He can be reached at [email protected].