On Feb. 4, the League of Women Voters of Evanston sponsored a forum for candidates for Alderman of the Fifth Ward at the Civic Center. There are five candidates who are running in the primary election scheduled for Feb. 28: Robin Rue, Carolyn Murray, Daniel Featherson, Carlis B. Sutton, and Misty Witenberg.

The two candidates who receive the most votes in the primary will be on the ballot for the April 4 election, Clerk Rodney Greene told the RoundTable.

Four of the candidates are long-term residents of the Fifth Ward. Ms. Witenberg is a newcomer.

Mr. Featherson said he has lived in the Fifth Ward most of his life. He moved back here in 2011 with his family, mostly for the schools, he said. He is a safety officer at Evanston Township High School and a founder of the Evanston Youth Athletic Association, which is a football program for youth ages 5-13.

Ms. Murray grew up in Evanston, and returned to Evanston after serving a tour in the military in Germany. She is currently an administrator for a pharmaceutical company. She previously served as a co-chair of Fifth Ward WEST and hosted Ward meetings for 12 years. She has represented Evanston at forums on gun violence and safety, and planned various events, such as National Night Out, Candlelight Vigils, and community forums.

Ms. Rue grew up in Evanston, and returned here 15 years ago with her children so they would have the same experience, she said. She operated a construction company in Evanston, and currently works as the Program Manager for Sunshine Enterprises, which supports local entrepreneurs developing local businesses, with a focus on low-income entrepreneurs.

Mr. Sutton has a master’s degree in education from the University of Massachusetts and a law degree from Texas Southern University, Thurgood Marshall School of Law. He is a third generation Evanstonian. He formerly taught at School Districts 65 and 202, and served in church and other community activities. He has been a frequent advocate at City Council and Committee meetings.

Ms. Witenberg has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kansas, worked as an editor for several magazines and manages public relations for clients. She moved to the Fifth Ward in 2014, and is the leader of several Girl Scout troops.

The candidates were asked questions on many topics. This article will summarize their responses to two questions relating to affordable housing and a minimum wage.

Question: What specific strategies would you support to create additional affordable housing?

Ms. Simmons said the City can find more creative and innovative ways to use CDBG funds and the HOME Emergency Funds, which it receives in federal funding.  She said the City could bring back the First Time Homebuyer program, and possibly improve the Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance to create additional affordable housing units. She added that the City might find ways to help people whose property taxes have been sold or whose homes are in foreclosure to stay in their homes, and it could explore ways to help people apply for available property tax exemptions, and to apply for mortgage loan modifications. “It’s very important we work to keep residents in their homes.”

Mr. Sutton said, “There would be no question about affordable housing if everyone in this community made a living wage. Unfortunately, we live at a time when there’s a shortage of property available to people of low-income and moderate income.

“We have the money. Let’s put it in place in cooperation with the churches in our community to make sure that every elderly person can get the funds to stay in their home and every person who wants to remain in Evanston can afford to live here,” Mr. Sutton said.

Ms. Witenberg said, “Affordable housing has to be integrated into a long-term strategy that addresses both the housing issue and the income inequality issue.”

Some of the strategies she suggested were rebuilding existing properties using more mixed-uses, extending grants by recycling down-payment plans, partnering with mission-driven lenders who will give down-payment assistance and lower interest rates and work with residents when they get in trouble, and foster home-sharing strategies that will help seniors.

She added, “We also need to make sure our residents are earning a family-supporting income through jobs” that are filled “through competency or skill based hiring.”

Mr. Featherson said, “I don’t think we’re going to TIF or grant our way out of this situation we’re in right now. … What we need is we need to bring in small business owners. Make it easier for them to open businesses and teach people how to learn skills where they can start their own businesses. That’s how you build jobs and have job creation.

“We have to go out and bring businesses in and recruit people to feel that the Fifth Ward is a place where they can have a business and prosper in Evanston.”

Ms. Murray said she benefited by the First Time Buyer Program, and now it no longer exists. She said the City should bring it back. She added that the City should devote funds to help existing homeowners rehab their homes, and it should help maintain their homes.

Question: Will you support a minimum wage?

Mr. Sutton said, “Yes.” He emphasized though that a “livable-wage” was more than a minimum wage, when we look at what’s needed in this community. “What I would like to see is some kind of support locally that we could subsidize, if not the salaries of employees, but give them vouchers to be able to make deposits for apartments and also to remain in Evanston.”

Ms. Witenberg said, “Yes. Minimum-wage jobs used to be worked by unskilled young people. Now they’re being worked by two-parent families.” She said 10% of the residents in the Fifth Ward who are working are working more than one job. They do not have employee benefits, they do not have health care. She said, “We have to make sure they have the opportunity to train for jobs in demand fields,” such as technology, so they can earn a competitive wage and support a family.

Mr. Featherson said, “Yes. Also, I think what we need to do is job training for a lot of people and schooling for a lot of people. Raising the minimum wage is great for a lot people, but it’s only a temporary fix, as inflation moves up. We have to get out there and really train people in the work-place to be managers, to be business owners and really push people for more schooling and other opportunities to better themselves.”

Ms. Murray said, “Yes.” She said the compensation structure of employees in the nation goes up with cost of living increases. “Why would we not look at a minimum wage increase?” She said she would support a “livable-wage” in Evanston, the State and the nation. Evanston has a history of setting precedents, Ms. Murray said. She suggested that Evanston could be a catalyst for the country in developing innovative ways to build a livable-wage.

Ms. Rue, said she supported increasing [Cook] County’s minimum wage, which was raised to $13 an hour. “It needs to be more than that. In Evanston, a livable-wage is about $19 an hour and that’s just to afford a one-bedroom. We absolutely need to focus on better jobs, trades, and technology jobs, and additional resources like awareness of being a firefighter – a great honorable position, she said.

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...