The high cost of housing may be a factor why more staff members don’t live in the City, said a staff report on a residency requirement proposal.

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An Evanston alderman is proposing the City consider a residency requirement for certain upper-level employees, maintaining the move would improve government decision-making.

At the Feb. 10 City Council Administration & Public Works Committee (A&PW) meeting, Committee members held their initial discussion of Sixth Ward Alderman Thomas Suffredin’s request for consideration of a residency requirement for select City employees.

“I think, with residents, they certainly see a good value in having high-level staff living in the City,” said Ald. Suffredin, leading off discussion.

“I  don’t know if it’s for every position in a City our size, but I think if you kept it at some level – director or manager –  and encouraged  them [officials] to live in Evanston, it might bridge the gap that seems to exist between staff and residents.”

Currently, the City Manager is the only upper level employee [contractually] required to live in Evanston, Human Resources Division Manager Jennifer Lin said in a memo.

Overall, 143 of the City’s 704 full-time employees are Evanston residents, with 2% of them living in states other than Illinois, she said.

By department, Public Works has the highest number of residents, 35 or 24.4%; police was next highest with 27 employees or 18.8%.

The Administrative Services Department, City Manager’s Office and Community Development Department – the policies or decisions of which can affect large numbers of people – fall on the other end of the scale, with percentages of residents among employees at  8.3%, 4.8% and 7.6%, respectively, according to Ms. Lin’s report.

In her report, Ms. Lin suggested that Evanston’s expensive housing and location made a residency requirement for employees, even above a certain level in rank, as not ideal, and she said it could deter applicants from applying for employment, especially management positions.

With Chicago and certain other large cities as exceptions, Ms. Lin said her staff knows of very few neighboring municipalities with residency requirements for employees.

Also, “without an articulable business necessity, a residency requirement could also result in adverse impact against certain groups of people, which could put the City at risk of liability for discrimination,” she wrote, noting that the City cannot impose policies which might discriminate against applicants or employees based on housing status or source of income.

In that regard, she noted that “a $380,600 median value of a home in Evanston could significantly deter qualified applicants from taking a position with the City if residency in Evanston was required.”

Local municipalities that have some form of residency requirement include the Village of Rosemont, and the cities of Elgin and St. Charles, she said in her report.

In addition, Niles, Tinley Park, Streamwood, DeKalb and Woodridge place a geographic boundary, typically 30 miles, on their employees, she said.

At the Feb. 10 A&PW meeting, Ald. Suffredin suggested officials look at the Elgin model, which has residency requirements for certain types of employees.

He acknowledged that Evanston is “an expensive place to live — that’s for sure, but that’s something all of our constituents are aware of because they live here, so it’s something that we should be mindful of and consider as we try to create the most livable city in America.”

Calling the idea still a concept at this stage, he agreed that applying the residency requirement to people already employed by the City would not be fair.

However, with the City in the process of looking for a new City Manager, “there’s an opportunity to, if we want to move in that direction,” to require residency for certain employees who come on board, he said.

Ald. Suffredin pointed to a disconnect in the past in some decisions that have come down from administrators and that might have been different if those officials were more rooted in Evanston.

He named the 2018 budget decision to close Fire Station 4 at 1817 Washington St., which led to wide community furor, “anything” involving Northwestern University, and even a proposal on the table now to dramatically hike up fines for residents who fail to clean their sidewalks, when asked for some examples.

“If we’re all living in the same community and all eating the same cooking,” he maintained during the Feb. 10 meeting, “we’d have a better government product.”

Ald. Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, suggested that officials responsible for hiring might consider using a scorecard, giving “preference to someone who actually lives here in town.”

“How we execute that across the different departments, at different levels, I’ll put in your capable hands, but I think that should be considered,” he said, directing his comments to Interim City Manager Erika Storlie, representing staff at the meeting.

Ms. Storlie said a scorecard type system is the current model officials are using for hiring in the Fire Department.

For directors and above, however, “we’re just looking for the best candidate who can serve the City of Evanston the best. She said a lot of times family situations come into play where one partner may need to relocate for the sake of another partner, and residency may not be feasible.

Overall, “it would be challenge to take a lesser qualified candidate over a higher qualified candidate for the simple sake of residency,” she told aldermen.

And “if all things were equal?” Ald. Braithwaite asked.

“If all things were equal, it would be a different scenario,” replied Ms. Storlie.

She told aldermen that staff would continue to get more information on the issue and bring back their findings to the Committee, perhaps by next month.

Bob Seidenberg

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.