Editorial: Over-occupancy and safety issues not synonymous

The Daily Northwestern Editorial Board

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Evanston aldermen are currently considering a proposal to revamp the rental license application for landlords in an effort to crack down on properties with ordinance violations – including the controversial over-occupancy rule.

The amendment to the existing ordinances proposes higher penalties for violations and grants the city manager the authority to revoke rental licenses. Critics point out the proposal is designed to target landlords who rent properties to more than three unrelated people; proponents say it would force negligent landlords to focus on safety issues. At the end of a City Council committee meeting Tuesday, the issue was tabled for further discussion.

Tuesday’s meeting presented precisely the confusion facing City officials and students alike: current city proposals to improve housing safety are muddied by the more controversial over-occupancy law. It is becoming increasingly difficult to divorce the two issues. Not all houses which are over-occupancy constitute safety concerns, and not all housing safety concerns are over-occupancy related. But the lack of transparency surrounding over-occupancy laws has created a culture of skepticism around any and all legislation pertaining to housing.

The Daily recognizes there are landlords in Evanston who take advantage of students and residents, and the City and the University should take action. Over-occupancy is just one of many ways in which landlords can exploit the student housing system. But when students are uncertain as to whom they should trust, the over-occupancy law becomes counterproductive to student safety – off-campus residents dealing with dangerous housing situations might be hesitant to contact University and city officials, for fear of being evicted for violating over-occupancy.

The Daly urges both the City and University administration to be more transparent regarding the over-occupancy law. Though University officials say they have regular discussions with city leaders about off-campus housing, students have not been informed of what has been discussed or decided in these meetings.

Students, particularly those who live off-campus and plan to do so in the future, should also be more active on the issue as well. There have been two opportunities for students to voice their concerns about housing to University administration this quarter – a town hall meeting in mid-October saw 13 students attend and last week’s Community Conversations meeting had only three. The low attendance was due in part to insufficient advertising, bad weather and inconvenient timing, but also to student apathy. Students will not realize the full extent of the over-occupancy ordinance until July, when they will no longer be exempt from eviction. By next academic year, it will be too late to have the opportunity to discuss and push to remove the ordinance. Anyone who plans to rent a unit off campus in the near future should be invested in dialogue with the City of Evanston now.

Furthermore, it is the responsibility and role of the Associated Student Government to be the voice of the student body. Last week’s Community Conversations forum fell inconveniently during the same time as ASG’s regularly scheduled Senate meeting. However, due to the significance of this topic and the need for more dialogue, the meeting should have been rescheduled. If ASG members are not present at these discussions, they cannot voice the opinions of the students they should be representing.

The over-occupancy ordinance has been a point of tension between students, the University and the City of Evanston, and its resolution is still uncertain at best. There is a compromise to be made, but only if students become more engaged in the housing issues, the University takes a stand in the interest of its students and Evanston officials are more honest about their actions and intentions.

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