Ortiz: Make a city to last a century — starting with affordable housing

Sterling Ortiz, Columnist

To Daniel Biss & The Evanston City Council,

Daniel Biss — my mom and I jointly congratulate you on becoming the next mayor of Evanston. I like you because you pushed a progressive income tax and a $15 minimum wage. You also pledged to fight for all the working-class Illinoisans who don’t live in multiple mansions. My mom likes you because your middle name is Kálmán, one of the great Eastern European names. 

But what direction will you lead Evanston, Mayor-elect Biss? That choice is up to you and your council. As a Northwestern student, I request that you shape an Evanston where everyone has a beautiful place to live.

Effective housing policy saved my life. When I was born in New York City, my mother and I went from the hospital to the homeless shelter to public housing in Harlem. Those experiences imprinted the importance of housing policy on my psyche. This is why I ask you to endorse and make calls for House Bill 116, which would give every city in Illinois the option to enforce rent control on their housing. If and when that bill passes, I encourage you to hold a vote on rent control in Evanston and campaign hard for a “Yes.”

Last summer, I lived in a bedroom on Garnett Place that cost $800 a month, while taking virtual classes. The experience wasn’t bad, per se — it helps when your roommates know how to season their food — but I saw first-hand how high Evanston rents are. Rent control would keep students and families in their homes, giving them a real chance to live in Evanston for decades. While any application may come too late for my Northwestern tenure, I believe enacting rent control would benefit future students and existing residents. 

Also, I believe that you and your council should take a sharp razor to the current zoning law for two reasons. 

First, multi-family homes are banned in a significant portion of Evanston, making rent much more expensive.

Second, the entire city is bound by a prehistoric law that says only three “unrelated persons” can live together. A college town and future great city like Evanston should not restrict greatness with these outdated laws. They should seek to encourage a boom of housing by opening every acre of housing to allow multiple families and to strike out the “unrelated persons” law. Whether they are Israeli immigrants like your family, immigrants from any other country, or Americans seeking a new start, every new Evanstonian is a blessing to all of us. Current Evanston residents will also see a benefit, since they would have more choices within the city.

The people of Evanston clearly have an affinity with you, Mayor-elect Biss. In the primary election, almost 8,000 voters thought you were the right choice, as you cruised to a first-round victory — and that grants you an incredible mandate to shape this city. And not only do you have that mandate, but the whole council does as well. 

The voters were clear with these municipal elections — Evanston wants a different direction. Down the ballot, the voters elected Clare Kelly over Judy Fiske who tried to ban our beer pong   along with three other new aldermen and a new city clerk. The young Sebastian Nalls, a man close to my age, got 9 percent of the vote on his first campaign supporting proposals like one that would shift Evanston Police Department’s funds toward public programs. That percentage means there was a group of people who so thoroughly believed in a just city that they chose to vote for a college student with no traditional experience, which is remarkable.

Rent control and abundant housing both fulfill worthy goals and sharpen each other like iron sharpens iron. You can’t cap the rent and ensure current residents keep living in Evanston if current residents don’t have a quality place to live. Now that the City Council is done cosplaying as prohibitionists, debating the morality of drinking games, Evanston can enact this great combination of housing policies. These actions will make this city a beacon on the North Shore.

Sterling Ortiz is from the School of Education and Social Policy, Class of 2023. He can be contacted at [email protected] If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected] The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.