Evanston partners with other college towns to inform students on housing costs, sustainability

Paige Leskin, City Editor

Sustainability officials from Evanston and college towns nationwide are partnering to create a website that helps both students and residents make informed decisions about the full renting and environmental costs of their housing.

Representatives from 14 cities are hoping to have a prototype of Rent Rocket up by early next year, said Jacqueline Bauer, the sustainability coordinator for Bloomington, Indiana, the home of Indiana University’s main campus.

“We think that students have a hard time considering the full cost of housing when they make housing decisions, so a big motivation for us is to try to get better information to tenants before they sign leases,” Bauer said. “Particularly in college towns, students have a huge impact on those communities.”

Made possible with a grant from green organization Urban Sustainability Director Network, the site aims to help college students, as well as landlords, understand that the cost of housing includes money for rent, electricity, water, transportation and more, Bauer said.

The partners want to create a network of data on the site that collects information on the breakdown of costs of various properties, Bauer said

“We’re trying to build a database of a whole slew of information that will help people understand everything involved in their housing decisions,” she said.

Before the site can fully launch, representatives from college towns are currently working to compile the data from a range of different sources, including city officials, college students, renters, property managers and landlords, Bauer said.

Not only does the site focus on providing data about housing costs, but it also includes the characteristics of properties’ environmentally friendly efforts, including waste disposal, recycling and energy efficiency, said Catherine Hurley, Evanston’s sustainable programs coordinator.

In Evanston, Hurley is in the midst of the initial outreach to people in the community. From the few conversations Hurley has had, people seem interested in making the collaborative effort work and making the city greener, she said.

“By working on the Rent Rocket project, we can make that information available and as part of the decision-making process when people are looking for rental properties,” she said. “Right now, we’re trying to make it easy for people to connect through our website to the Rent Rocket tool and start crowdsourcing the information.”

Hurley said she has reached out to the Northwestern Associated Student Government’s Sustainability Committee to better access the NU community. Although she has not been able to meet with ASG yet this quarter to talk about Rent Rocket, she said meetings with the organization, as well as with the University’s Office of Sustainability and Eco-Reps, are definitely a possibility in the future.

Medill sophomore Christina Cilento, ASG’s vice president of sustainability, said her committee would be interested in working with the city to make Rent Rocket a reality in Evanston.

Bauer said the $45,000 grant must be used by the end of May 2015 in developing the site.

Although it is not a huge amount of money, Evanston does not plan on using any of its own budget for the startup of Rent Rocket, Hurley said.

“The vision right now is that this is really sort of a low-cost, high-tech solution that’s not going to be looking for city funding,” she said. “We’re still looking at what are the ways it would be funded.”

The 14 college towns that have expressed interest in the project include Madison, Wisconsin; Iowa City, Iowa; Ann Arbor, Michigan; and Berkeley, California.

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