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Updated: Evanston backs down on ‘brothel law’

Alex Kane Rudansky

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Two hours after meeting with University President Morton Schapiro on Wednesday afternoon, Evanston officials announced they do not plan to step up enforcement of the controversial “brothel law” after all – a reversal from their previous position.

Northwestern administrators and student leaders, who were explicitly told by city officials months ago that enforcement would be increased around July 1, reacted to the news with relief. But they cautioned that the threat is “not over” because the ordinance is still on the books and may be selectively enforced.

“All I need to know is that nothing is going to happen on July 1 that’s any different than what has happened for the last 10 years, and if anything does happen differently, trust me, Northwestern University is not going to stand for it,” Schapiro said Wednesday afternoon.

The Associated Student Government will continue to push the Evanston City Council to amend the ordinance, which prohibits three unrelated people from living in the same house and, if strictly enforced, could lead to the eviction of hundreds of NU students, ASG President Claire Lew said. The law has been on the books for years but has in the past only been enforced on rare occasions.

In a statement released at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, city officials said they are not planning to change their “enforcement strategy,” but they said they were never planning to change it in the first place.

According to the release, “The City of Evanston has enforced these laws regularly through the years and will continue to do so to protect the safety of occupants and neighborhood residents.”

Calling media reports to the contrary “incorrect,” the statement said the city had never planned enforcement changes for this summer.

In an interview, NU Dean of Students Burgwell Howard said University administrators were told the city would step up enforcement on July 1.

“It is very, very clear to us that the July 1 date was a date that was coming forward from the city,” Howard said. “This clearly was a miscommunication within the City of Evanston.”

Jeff Murphy, the city’s top official for building inspection, told 500 students at a contentious town hall meeting Tuesday night the same thing: that the city planned to increase its enforcement of the law on July 1.

When contacted Wednesday evening, Evanston spokesman Eric Palmer, declining further comment, did not explain why Murphy publicly discussed the early summer enforcement date.

Murphy, who had talked regularly with media through Tuesday night, said he is no longer authorized to comment on the issue.

Schapiro, who spent the weekend fundraising in Florida, said he arrived on campus Tuesday to news of student outrage over enforcement of the “brothel law” and scheduled a meeting for Wednesday with Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl and City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz.

In a separate meeting Wednesday, Howard, Assistant Dean of Students Betsi Burns and other University administrators met with Tisdahl, Bobkiewicz, Murphy and Alds. Delores Holmes (5th), Judy Fiske (1st) and Jane Grover (9th), among others.

“We had a reasoned discussion among people who share a mutual objective,” Howard said of the meeting. “We were clear about our questions and concerns and we will be working in subsequent weeks and months to follow up with the questions raised tonight.

“We appreciate the responsiveness of Evanston officials to the concerns raised by Northwestern students and administrators,” Howard said in an e-mail to the NU community Wednesday evening.

Following both meetings, Tisdahl released a separate statement which said “no changes are planned” for enforcement of the “brothel law.”

Tisdahl also referred to a “great deal of misinformation in the media.” Later she changed the wording of her statement to refer to a “great deal of misinformation in the community.”

A story published Tuesday in The Daily included interviews with several University and Evanston officials who said the city was planning to increase enforcement, which could result in hundreds of students being evicted. In the fall, several media outlets, including The Daily, reported the city was planning to increase enforcement in the summer.

Students expressed outrage at Tuesday’s town hall meeting, which was led by Howard, Burns and Murphy.

The official agenda for that meeting said that “beginning in the summer of 2011, the City of Evanston will strictly enforce these requirements,” referring to the “brothel law.”

Students reacted to the latest developments with mixed emotions. Those interviewed said they are happy the ordinance will not be more stringently enforced, but some expressed worry because it remains a possible threat to students.

“It’s not over,” ASG Off-campus senator Reed Wilson said. “The law is still there … and it has the potential to do all the things we were scared of it doing last night.”

Lew encouraged students to remain engaged on this issue and said she hopes they will attend Monday night’s City Council meeting.

“Students should think about how this issue continues to matter, even if in the short term it appears to be resolved,” she said.

Sean Collins Walsh, Lark Turner and Brian Rosenthal contributed reporting.

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