Editorial: Rental licensing committee too exclusive

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Local politicians must make difficult decisions that affect diverse groups with disparate opinions. Their job, as elected officials, is to make those decisions as fairly as possible, taking into account all of the concerned parties. The City of Evanston has failed live up to this responsibility in the way it formed the Rental Unit Licensing Committee, which will hold its second meeting tonight to discus a procedure for establishing a licensing system for landlords.

The existence of the committee presupposes that a municipal-level license for landlords is an appropriate way for the city to enforce housing safety ordinances, including the one forbids more than three unrelated tenants from living in a single unit, as well as ordinances about “nuisance properties.” Whether or not that is the case, it’s here now, so the city council should be making sure the committee is fully equipped to make informed and responsible recommendations.

A lot of residents have a stake in this issue. Families living close to Northwestern who feel that close proximity to students hampers their quality of life have concerns in this debate that deserve to be discussed. So do many Northwestern students who live in housing arrangements that break the “three unrelated” ordinance. The University, which, partially due to city zoning policy, cannot house its entire student body on campus, is also an affected party. So are the landlords, essentially local business owners, who rent to the students. The City of Evanston was negligent in forming the Rental Unit Licensing committee when it barred a landlord that rents primarily to students and a University administrator from participating.

Last week, The Daily reported that Assistant Dean of Students Betsi Burns and landlord Joshua Braun were both nominated to serve on the committee. According to e-mails, Ald. Judy Fiske (1st), whose ward wraps around campus up to Noyes Street and extends out to Sherman Avenue, objected to their participation, citing incidents in the past in which Burns and Braun have voiced dissenting opinions. Fiske wrote, “I hope someone can reassure me that this isn’t going to become a media feeding frenzy. If not, I would object to Ms. Burns and Mr. Braun’s appointments.”

Fiske told The Daily that Burns had addressed the occupancy ordinance by “saying one thing to students, one thing to administrators and one thing to the city, (making) the conversation that occurs in the press even more confusing,”

Braun and Burns were taken out of the running and the final committee included Fiske, Ald. Don Wilson (4th), Ald. Jane Grover (7th), two NU students, homeowners, property managers and landlords. In Evanston, when the mayor forms a committee, city council members have veto power over nominees in a process that is kept private to avoid saying disparaging things about people in public meetings, Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl told The Daily. If that is the system Evanston is going to use, elected officials need to be responsible enough to ensure that every voice, even the ones they might not agree with, is heard.

Fiske has done a commendable job of representing many of her constituents. When the University opened the Great Room and residents complained about the smells, noises and TV glare, Fiske brought the matter to council before it was handled by the Zoning Board of Appeals. More recently, she has been vocal about residents’ trepidations that NU might build a dormitory at the site it used to lease to the Roycemore school. She also took it upon herself in February to complain to the Evanston Police Department about underage purchasers at Evanston 1st Liquors, which is in Wilson’s ward. Fiske has demonstrated that she is dedicated to the concerns of many Evanston residents, but that group seems not to include NU students in her ward. As a leader, she should recognize that this diverse city is made up of many opinions and concerns, and silencing the ones that differ from hers is a glaring example of irresponsible leadership.

The city council’s job is not to find committees that will make decisions quickly with no unpleasant disagreements. It is to be advised by a group that is representative of all affected parties. The city has failed to adequately do this job, rejecting representation from NU’s administration and a landlord who rents 15 Evanston properties, mainly to NU students.

Burns has been attending the committee meetings as a private citizen. Students who plan to live off campus next year might do well to do the same. The committee meets at 7 p.m. tonight in room 2404 of the Evanston Civic Center on Ridge Street between Simpson and Noyes streets.