The idea that the zip code, and even the street address, tell a predictive story about the quality of and opportunities within an American citizen’s lifetime is an idea that is now reaching critical consciousness around the world.  

We must also recognize that it is not just where we live, but also how we live, that determines our access to healthy space, our resiliency from displacement, our feeling of belonging. Race plays a major role. 

Not only are Black and Brown people much more likely to live in unhealthy or even toxic residential conditions, they are also evicted at much higher rates than white people nationwide. Inability to afford rent drives most evictions, and locally we find that more than 50% of Evanstonians are cost burdened, meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on rent. Many spend over half their income on rent. Given local economic stratification by race, this burden has inevitably contributed to the 27% decrease in the portion of Black residents living in Evanston since 2000. 

The upstream legal structures that govern both where and how we live are a web of federal, state and local laws. The history of racist development plays a role. Zoning is central. Civil rights and market forces are in the mix.

And perhaps most proximate to residents’ day-to-day lives is the municipal or regional “landlord/tenant” ordinance. These laws govern how much landlords can require as move-in fees, what they can put in their leases, how they manage late payments and eviction, what repairs must be made and how, and more.  

Plainly, they play a massive part in spelling out the rules of the game between landlords and tenants, in a power dynamic that is fundamentally imbalanced in most parts of the US.  

This evening, Evanston’s Housing and Community Development Committee (HCDC) will continue to discuss the future of landlord/tenant relations in the city at an in-person meeting at 7 p.m. at the Civic Center. Residents can also listen in to the discussion virtually and submit their own written comments by 5 p.m. Advocates like Open Communities, Lawyer’s Committee for Better Housing, and Metropolitan Tenants’ Organization have advised the city on potential ways to strengthen Evanston’s Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance. 

As we see it, there are two ways forward. Evanston can catch up with the great strides that have been made with laws in Cook County and the City of Chicago. We can offer protections and regulations as strong as our neighbors’ and avoid a highly fragmented geography of regulations.   

Or, as Evanston has done with its reparations ordinance, we can become leaders. Our organization encourages the latter; we urge Chair [Eleanor] Revelle and all committee members to envision just how much stronger we can make our community by modernizing this law.  

The loudest voices too often prevail in these conversations, and we caution against this dynamic. As Council Member Bobby Burns pointed out in the first HCDC meeting on this topic, the goal should not be achieving balance by falsely presenting the concerns of landlords and tenants on equal footing, but instead should be pursuing what is just.  

Open Communities captured data from a survey of 400 Evanston residents that shows the need for change. Out of choices given, the top 5 largest barriers identified in housing interactions were: the cost of move-in fees, poor management response to tenant needs such as repairs, the amount of notice given for rent increases, the cost of security deposits, and not being informed about average utility costs before moving in.  

Tenants also entered qualitative data in their own words. Overwhelmingly, the concerns most commonly related to cost – this is no surprise given that rents have increased 17% in just the last year. One survey response was emblematic of the majority: “Cost of rent in a small studio apartment is 50% of my income, making it nearly impossible to have savings for a rainy day.”

Residents were asked to indicate which proposals they support from an abbreviated list of those before the HCDC. Being informed of the average utility costs, increased notice periods for rent increases and non-renewals, a limit on both the rent-to-income ratios that landlords can require and the late fees they can levy, as well as a just cause for eviction provision were the most popular policy solutions, respectively.  

As advocates, we also know many of the other proposals before the committee could make enormous improvements to tenants’ lives. A one-time right to cure nonpayment of rent, requiring that move-in fees be related to real expenses, and even giving tenants the first right of refusal on building sales would represent major strides toward a more equitable landscape.  

The solutions are within our grasp. For too long, renters have accepted a life that is fundamentally precarious. We look forward to seeing Evanston move ahead of the pack rather than play catch-up.

Dominic Voz, assistant director of fair housing for Open Communities

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  1. Instituting these “popular policy solutions” would only serve to *decrease* the amount of available rental units in Evanston…

    Gregory Morrow – Evanston 4th Ward resident