Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Brothel law’ is back in enforcement, students say

Despite promises to the contrary, city officials are actively enforcing Evanston’s controversial “brothel law” as the school year starts, according to accounts from Northwestern students and building employees.

The decades-old zoning ordinance, which prohibits more than three unrelated people from living in the same house, sparked widespread student outcry in January after a Daily article reported Evanston would step up its implementation starting July 1.

City officials eventually backed down, saying they had no plans to increase the enforcement of occupancy laws. Their announcement not to make more stringent an “enforcement strategy” followed a contentious town hall meeting that drew 500 students Jan. 25. University administrators said the debacle was the result of a miscommunication within the city.

At that point, the controversy seemingly died down.

But as some students moved back to Evanston in late August, they encountered a reality at odds with the city’s stated plan: some landlords informing them the now-infamous “brothel law” would be strictly enforced. One of those landlords, property manager Nancy Gabriel, said city officials were “crafty in letting this fizzle out” after students quickly mobilized in opposition. Gabriel said she oversees the management of more than 250 properties containing more than 1,500 units in Evanston.

Gabriel told The Daily in January she thought the city needed to find a way to better work with students.

“Most people think this law is dead and gone,” Gabriel said last week. “I could easily see why people could come to the conclusion that they’re not enforcing this anymore. We thought this issue was going away.”

In a statement released last January, Dean of Students Burgwell Howard said the University would work to prevent targeted enforcement of the ordinance: “The University will oppose any efforts that target our students selectively using this ordinance. Doing so would be a disservice to our students, the University and the entire Evanston community.”

Howard confirmed Sunday night hearing rumors of student complaints about the renewed enforcement of occupancy laws, but said he’d heard nothing directly.

Rather than blaming city officials, Howard said landlords have been “left out of this conversation” and cited a recent meeting where city officials shared a list of about 45 properties in violation of any city code. Howard estimated “some properties” on the list might include over-occupancy violations, but could not cite a specific number.

He said students are ultimately responsible for following the occupancy code.

“It is on the students if they knowingly entered a lease over occupancy,” Howard said. “I think we fairly cautioned against doing that.”

City officials, including Alds. Judy Fiske (1st), Delores Holmes (5th), Jane Grover (7th), Evanston division manager of building and inspection services Jeff Murphy, inspection and customer service supervisor Kerry Demski, and Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, did not return calls for comment Sunday.

The “brothel law” symbolizes a broader issue to some students: already-strained town-gown relations becoming more and more tense. Howard said he had heard reports of neighbors specifically monitoring the number of students attending apartment viewings and taking pictures of the names listed on mailboxes.

McCormick junior Christy Lewis, whose house was recently cited for over-occupancy, pointed to the “brothel law” as another example of this strained relationship.

“I honestly don’t know what the fix is,” she said. “It’s frustrating and – I don’t know. It just seems like the rift between Northwestern and Evanston is getting ridiculous.”

But it’s not just students frustrated with the upped enforcement. Handyman and locksmith Jonathan Bean said the “brothel law” puts him and other building workers in an awkward position.

Bean regularly accompanies city inspectors on two different types of inspections, one in which occupancy violations are specifically sought.

Bean recalled once questioning his supervisors about what exactly to do if he spots an over-occupied space.

“Do I kick them out?” Bean said. “These people looked at me and said, ‘Yeah.’ And since then I concluded I don’t want anything to do with this occupancy shit.”

Emerging conflict

When Lewis was first notified her house would be inspected in mid-September, she and her eight roommates – six of whom are listed on the lease – did little to conceal their over-occupied property.

She said she thought the “brothel law” was essentially null and void after January’s events.

That was not the case.

“I gave her two names, and I just stopped,” Lewis said, recalling her brief exchange with the city inspector. “I was like, ‘I’m sorry. I have to go to class.’ And I left.”

Now, Lewis and her fellow residents have 30 days to “cure the problem,” she said, using the exact words she said city officials told her. That “problem” could cost her landlord $100 per day after the 30-day grace period, according to the occupancy ordinance.

Bean said the city’s intensified approach is disconcerting.

“Initially, they made a big stink, a lot of noise about it,” he said of the initial student opposition. “And then between the students and everything, they decided to pull the plug on it until the end of the school year. And now on Sept. 1 of this year, they’ve really kicked it into high gear.”

Gabriel added the occupancy issue punctuates an “increasingly antagonistic” relationship between city officials and property managers. She said the city “smartly pits” tenants against their landlords, misleading students into thinking landlords do not have their best interests in mind and are acting according to economic motives.

Howard said the city is not “actively seeking out occupancy violations.”

“The city is senstive and wants to make sure the residents are being taken care of, and also adhering to laws,” Howard said. “The University is actively looking out for the best interest of students, faculty and staff to make sure they are not being harassed. But I think it’s really a matter of bad landlords, and the city is looking to resolve that.”

Gabriel said the problem does stem from the city, leading to tense inspector investigations.

“Is she supposed to lie and say the number of bathrooms from a lawyer’s perspective, from an architect’s perspective?” she said of a hypothetical inspection. “The inspectors ask tenants how to spell their names and where their rooms are, and the rooms of their friends. It scares them, makes them extremely uncomfortable and invades their privacy.”

Weinberg senior Parth Sharma, another off-campus resident, recalled a similar experience. Although he described his inspector as generally polite and professional, he said he felt an aggre
ssive vibe as the inspection proceeded.

Sharma said the perception was cemented after the inspector walked in one of his five housemates’ rooms while he was sleeping. Sharma said the inspector “demanded” to know who was asleep and if they lived there.

“It seemed like she was asking very simple questions, but the manner in which she was asking them was almost to hint that she wanted us to say something that maybe we should not say,” Sharma said, adding it was nonetheless “very obvious” the house was over-occupied, with all but one resident home during the inspection.

Sharma has yet to receive an official citation for over-occupancy. But he said his housemates now have a scheduled meeting with their landlord to plan their next step.

Lewis described another solution: simply removing beds and any traces of additional roommates before the next inspection.

She said the leaseholders can definitely not afford the rent on their own, so removing residents is just not an option.

Situations like these are examples of why Bean said he has grown increasingly weary of his role in inspections.

“My goal is to make things better for them,” he said of student-residents. “My goal is not to be on antagonistic terms with them.”

Surveillance and Harassment

In addition to tense inspections, several off-campus residents have complained of harassment and intrusive monitoring by city representatives.

Communication junior Emily Spitzer said the city has repeatedly delayed renovation permits on her off-campus house as a roundabout way of enforcing the “brothel law.”

The house she now rents, which is over-occupied, has been under construction throughout the past year.

“They just keep delaying the permits for as long as possible so no work can be done on the property and we cannot fully move in,” Spitzer said. “Yes, we are students but we shouldn’t be treated any differently than regular Evanston residents.”

Spitzer also said the city used “scare tactics” against her and her housemates, such as unexpectedly shutting off their water.

“I literally walked out of the house one day and there was a city sanitation worker outside who said our water was being shut off because the city ordered it,” Spitzer said. “The city is using any excuse they can to inspect the house for over-occupancy.”

Another NU student, who wished to remain anonymous due to a pending inspection, said he was videotaped by a city inspector who entered his house without warning and “unannounced.”

“An inspector walked in through an unlocked door – nobody let him in – and he started taking pictures and videos with his iPhone while I was sleeping on the couch,” he said. “I was unhappy, uncomfortable and just extremely surprised.”

A second student, who lives in that same house, said he witnessed city officials loitering around his property on more than one occasion.

“People have been constantly been coming by and asking us how many occupants live in the house,” he said. “There was one inspector outside my window a couple weeks ago just staring inside through the glass for a while.”

A third student from the same residence also had an unexpected encounter with a city official.

“I was walking back home and a woman came up to the porch and asked me if I lived here and how many people lived on each floor of the house,” he said. “After I asked several times who she was, she finally identified herself as a representative of the city.”

According to its residents, the property in question was supposed to be inspected a couple weeks ago, but the city “abruptly cancelled” and still hasn’t informed the students of their new inspection date.

Bean said he has heard similar accounts of residence surveillance, adding it would “not even remotely be out of character” for the city to take such extreme measures at this point.

Going Forward

Some Evanston residents disagree with the city’s tactics, but support the underlying cause.

“I feel like if a house is only big enough for a certain number of people that are supposed to be there, that’s all it should legally hold,” Evanston resident Barbara Blades said. “There are dangers to having overcrowded homes, such as fire hazards and it creates a lot of additional traffic on the block.”

A 41-year Evanston resident, Blades said she has seen an increasing number of NU students move into her neighborhood in recent years.

“It’s been a little difficult because we see the increased traffic and more people on the streets late at night,” Blades said. “It wasn’t like this 41 years ago when we moved here.”

Regardless of the legality of her residence, Spitzer said she is running out of patience for what she considers a “severe invasion of privacy.”

“We plan on calling the police if this ever happens again,” she said.

Bean considers this tension over off-campus housing to be part of a much larger conflict between NU and the city officials.

“Quite frankly, the city doesn’t like the University and doesn’t respect the University,” Bean said. “They’re under a lot of pressure by single-family homes in the area to rein this in. “If it plays out the city’s way, hell or high water, they will have the over-occupancy gone.”

Lewis said she recognizes the apparent lack of mutual respect.

“One of the things that makes me angry is Evanston completely dismisses how much good the University does for the city,” Lewis said.

After the initial spectacle surrounding the “brothel law” earlier this year, the city seemed to back down from previous threats of strict enforcement. Ethan Merel, former ASG external relations vice president, said the relieved student body should have remained engaged.

“Things quickly died down once students believed the issue had been solved,” Merel said. “The situation as it stands this year is pretty much exactly where we were in last year, or the year before that, or the year before that. The law has not been changed in decades.”

Merel suggested students encourage city officials to change the law and bring the issue to rest.

“Last year, there was a very short uproar, and then the issue was pretty much dropped, which is not the most effective way of instigating change,” Merel said. “If students are passionate about the issue, they should go about lobbying the city government.”

Annie Chang and Katherine Driessen contributed reporting to this story.

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Brothel law’ is back in enforcement, students say