These are the unedited answers of Misty Witenberg to the RoundTable’s questions submitted to all candidates for Fifth Ward Alderman
Question: Please provide information on your educational background; employment/professional background; volunteer and civic activities; and other attributes that qualify you for the position of Alderman of the Fifth Ward.
I was raised in a low-income community and was a first-generation college student. My oldest child was born when I was 19, and though I continued to work full-time, attend classes and later manage my university magazine, I still had rely on public assistance for healthcare, WIC grocery vouchers and subsidized childcare. Luckily, I was able to use those supports and went on to graduate with a News & Information Journalism Degree from the University of Kansas.
Following graduation I was hired first as a staff writer for a local magazine, then as an editor for Shape magazine, Fit Pregnancy and Mom & Baby magazines. While there, I lived in Maplewood, New Jersey and volunteered with our elementary school, Garden State Equality and the Maplewood-South Orange Community Coalition on Race. I became a first-time homeowner at the peak of the housing bubble on extremely poor loan terms that I didn’t really understand. What could go wrong?
In late 2010, with the magazine industry in deep decline, and after escaping several rounds of layoffs, my luck finally ran out and I was cut. The timing was bad as I had just ended my 8-year marriage, and housing crisis meant that I now owed more on my house than it was worth and I could no longer afford my mortgage. So, now a single mother of two facing a foreclosure, I picked up my kids and moved to a more affordable rental in a new town where we didn’t know anyone to look for a job.
After scrapping together freelance work to make ends meet, my networking paid off and I was hired as a Copywriter for creative group licensee of brands such as Martha Stewart and American Girl. Less than a year later I was promoted to Public Relations Manager for the brands. A year after that, my entire department was laid off, and I had to start over again.
This time however, I was engaged to remarry, so I again picked up my kids and we drove to Chicago, where my fiancé had found work. I continued to freelance, now as a Content Developer & Marketer. I travelled to Africa to do service at a Tanzanian orphanage and a primary and secondary school. In 2014, my husband and I fell in love with Evanston, and decided to put down our roots here, purchasing a home in the 5th Ward. Soon after, my third child was born.
Since living in Evanston, I have led Girl Scout troops ranging from Brownies to Cadettes, working with the program’s financial scholarship service so that we never had to turn a child away. I also continued to volunteer at my childrens’ schools. A year and a half ago, my son and oldest child revealed to me he was transgender, so we have been working together on his LGBTQ+ advocacy efforts ever since.
Question: What would be your top three priorities as Alderman? What would you do to advance your priorities?
Strengthen the Safety Net for our most Vulnerable Residents
- Address and prioritize how we can compensate for the potential and current loss of vital services to our low- and fixed-income residents in a fiscally sustainable way.
- Protect our current residents from being priced out of their homes by not just expanding our affordable homes, but simultaneously addressing and reducing the disproportionate tax and fee burdens placed on low-income residents
- Address how we will reassure and protect minority groups who have been targeted by publicly endorsed discrimination proposed as policy.
Promote Upward Mobility for Working-Class Families
- Link low-income parents to stable and family-supporting employment
- Expand career development training, particularly for skilled and in-demand industries, to make our residents more competitive in the job market
- Incentivize competency-based hiring that is based on an applicant’s skill set, not on the level of education attained
- Structure services and programs to fit the reality of working families
- Foster asset development for low-income families in the form of affordable homeownership as well as better banking and credit solutions so residents don’t have to rely on high-interest fringe financial services
- Integrate increased access to social capital and networking
Streamline our Services for Low-Income & At-Risk Youth
- We have a wide network of organizations, agencies and services geared to disadvantaged youth. Now we need to connect the dots to keep kids from falling through the cracks.
Question: What are the top three challenges facing the Fifth Ward? What would you do as Alderman to address the challenges?
Our challenges are in the stark disparities in resources, social mobility and opportunity that are systematically ingrained and too often invisible to the rest of the city. Our residents are having to make impossible trade-offs, such as risking their jobs and wage loss because they need to stay at home to care for a sick child.
We need to narrow these gaps by prioritizing economic development that will best serve our residents with family-supporting employment and by creating more affordable housing options that allows Evanston to retain and grow the diversity it uses as an asset when attracting new residents and businesses.
We have to even the playing field by prioritizing investments to promote the means for 5th ward residents to get ahead and sustain themselves and their families. We have to give parents the supports they need to work, secure the resources to help their children thrive, and to cope with immense burdens that come with raising a family in poverty and near-poverty.
We also have to reform the municipal revenue streams so they’re no longer disproportionately burdening our poorest citizens through city fines and fees, sales taxes, property taxes. As a national average, the poorest 20% of Americans are paying more than twice the rate of state and local taxes (including property, sales and excise taxes) than the richest 1%.
If we truly want to commit to economic justice, we have to promote a shared vision, complete with measurable goals and accountability that extends to all of our residents.
Question: What should the City do to address youth violence? Is it doing enough, should it do things differently?
Establish a task force to address disparities in outcomes for at-risk youth
- We need to look to the data that identifies the inequities in family and income stability, education and within the justice department to better shape and fund outreach efforts for youth at risk of violent and delinquent behavior.
Empower Family Stability
- More than 17% of Evanston’s households are single-mother families living below the poverty level without a present father.
- We know that children, especially boys, who grow up in a fatherless household are more likely to drop out of school and end up in prison.
- We must prioritize reengaging noncustodial fathers in their childrens’ lives to be involved and committed parents by providing community father-child recreation programs, incorporating parental training to fathers on probation and through broader employment opportunities that allow fathers with criminal records transition back into the mainstream job market so they can contribute economically to their children.
Expand Opportunities for Early Work Experience
- Increase our youth job programs, as well as volunteer, service and apprenticeship opportunities for teens and young adults
- Encourage youth civic engagement with programs like the Youth Council
Connect Community & Developmental Supports
- Better coordinate with our schools to identify at-risk students and respond with early interventions and the appropriate supports.
- Broaden access to youth activities and mentor networks to counter the social and economic pressures that lead to violent and delinquent behavior.
- Partner with outreach workers, the school district, police department, the department of juvenile services, community groups, faith institutions, service providers, and parents who can be responsive to youth needs.
Advocate for Support & Rehabilitation
- Push the state to restore funding to youth prevention and incarceration-alternative programs like Redeploy Illinois and the Comprehensive Community-Based Youth Programs.
- Develop protocol for city police when dealing with minors that requires intervention from outreach workers properly equipped to support and rehabilitate at-risk youth as alternatives to charges and incarceration.
Question: What should the City do to promote economic development in the Fifth Ward? Is it doing enough, should it do things differently?
We need to start with a focus on supporting our workers and retaining existing business. When we look to attract new development and businesses, we need to be strategic in ensuring they:
- Will use competency-based hiring practices that make our residents more employable.
- Will offer the housing, services and/or amenities that will improve the quality of life for our residents.
- That development efforts will have zero displacement on our residents.
Question: What do you think about police-community relations in the Fifth Ward? In the City?
It should surprise no one that improvements need to be made, especially in the 5th ward. Speaking with my neighbors, it’s clear that the disproportionate number of interactions and use of force on low-income residents, particularly on men of color, has seeded deep-rooted distrust and resentment over decades.
That said, our officers provide a vital service to our city at large, and often put their lives at risk as part of that service. We need to work as partners to narrow the tension and divisions that exist. Efforts must include comprehensive training against racial bias, deescalation and crisis intervention. Our city needs to develop a “Use of Force” standard and have an official policy of using minimum force necessary. Obviously, we need to improve transparency, and use our Police Advisory Committee as an Oversight Committee who can issue regular and independent citizen reports that include police interaction data.
Less talked about solutions include hiring more women on the force, as female officers are less than half as likely to use excessive force, and deprioritizing enforcement of minor infractions that lead to overcriminalization.
Question: Name some things the City should do to preserve or create additional affordable housing.
Affordable housing must be integrated into a long-term strategy to reduce income and asset inequality. To do this I will work to:
Increase Pathways to Homeownership
- Partner with reputable, mission-driven lenders to make safe and sustainable loans with lower interest rates, downpayment assistance programs and a willingness to work with borrowers who are facing default
- Incorporate wraparound financial counselling and homeowner education so that potential and current homeowners can improve their credit, navigate the paperwork and properly prepare for maintenance and other often overlooked property ownership costs.
Safeguard Residents from being Priced Out
- Look to rent stabilization to protect rent hikes resulting from development efforts.
- Formalize protections for tenants whose landlords are at risk of foreclosure.
- Continue exploring strategies such as mixed-use property construction and shared equity proposals and subsidies to retain owner-occupied homes, especially for fixed-income seniors.
Develop a More Progressive Property Tax
- Property taxes disproportionally burden low-income homeowners and renters. Low-income property owners often have the majority of their wealth tied to their home, and so are taxed at a higher rate. And up to 75% of property tax increases end up passed on to renters.
- However, we can look for ways to extend exemptions or rebates to residents who earn below a certain threshold, or look for ways to limit the percentage of income residents pay in property taxes to compensate for inequitable taxations and fees.
Question: Do you support Evanston’s Cradle to Career initiative and partnering with community organizations to increase opportunities for youth? Please provide your views.
Yes, C2C is an excellent example of community collaboration. We can use the momentum of that initiative to fill the gaps of affordable high-quality childcare programs and to further equip parents with the resources to advocate for their children.
Question: How should the City promote equity?
As a city, we need to aggressively boost awareness of inequities, internally and to the public, so we can properly address them. This confrontation of inequality is the only way to mobilize us as a community to take the pains to effectively combat it.
Question: The City has taken steps toward becoming a sustainable City. What will you do as Alderman to promote sustainability in ways that will be affordable for all residents?
Energy-Efficiency Initiative Targeted to Low-Income Households
- On average, the energy burden of low-income households is 3 times higher than other households. These inefficiencies also lead to higher health costs when poor conditions aggravate respiratory, heart and joint issues.
- Through the initiative, the city can create jobs for local residents, through installation of insulation and appliances, weatherization, and repairs in ventilation, cooling and heating.
- Our community will further benefit from a more efficient power grid, cleaner air and lower utility bills resulting from fewer utility subsidies.
- I will seek funding from federal and state sources and rebate programs, including the Illinois Energy Now & the state’s Efficiency Trust Fund as well as local partners, utilities and appliance services.
Maximize Efficiency of Local Job Creation Efforts to Reduce Commuting Needs & Resulting Pollution
Explore Plans for a Community Greenhouse in the 5th Ward
- Would serve the dual purpose of supplementing food security efforts and promote better nutrition and health
- Potential funding from sources such as the USDA’s Community Food Projects Grants Program