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DeKalb council looks to define Greek housing

DeKALB – The DeKalb City Council is considering whether to require all existing Greek housing to install fire sprinklers by Jan. 1, 2019.

But first, they’ll have to define “Greek housing.”

The definition of Greek housing under state law that underpins the ordinance leaves itself open to interpretation, said City Attorney Dean Frieders.

The Greek Housing Fire Safety Act defines it as “a structure that provides housing for members of a social fraternity or sorority ... at a public or private institution of higher education.”

The definition is vague to the point where a single unit in an apartment complex housing a fraternity or sorority member could be defined as Greek housing, and thus might require fire sprinklers to be installed.

“If you put letters on the outside of your house, is that Greek housing?” Fire Chief Eric Hicks said. “That’s what the council needs to decide.”

Northern Illinois University has 44 Greek organizations, with 28 of them occupying some kind of house or apartment building. Six of these houses already have fire sprinkler systems; a seventh house has a partial system.

Only the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has more Greek organizations and Greek houses than NIU. All 63 houses have had sprinklers since at least 2009.

The other public universities that DeKalb looked at – Illinois State University, Eastern Illinois University, Southern Illinois University-Carbondale and Western Illinois University – are moving at different rates to require sprinkler systems.

Fire sprinklers also were installed at the 29 Greek housing structures at Northwestern University. But Northwestern is a private university, and as a result, it falls under the code requirements of the city of Evanston. As of 2009, all Greek houses at NU had to have fire sprinklers installed.

NIU is unique in that there are a number of fraternities and sororities that have been moving into apartment complexes, with each member signing individual leases as opposed to one master lease governing all of them.

At the City Council meeting Monday, city staff asked for direction from the council on the issue. Frieders said the council needs to decide this issue, as trying to enforce the law as it is written would be incredibly difficult.

“It is setting us up for conflicts with property owners,” Frieders said.

Mayor Kris Povlsen said in an interview that he thinks only houses that are owned and/or managed by Greek organizations should be considered Greek housing. He added that he does not consider apartment complexes being rented out by Greeks as being Greek housing.

One potential hurdle might be the cost of installing the sprinkler system. While it would cost nothing for the city, property owners might have to pay $1.50 to $2 per square foot for a sprinkler system. But the water system at a particular house might not be enough, and installing a new one could be another $10,000 to $20,000.

Hicks said the Public Works Department is examining the water service at each of the rooming houses NIU Greeks occupy in order to determine if they would need another system.

First Ward Alderman David Jacobson expressed concern at the meeting that installing sprinkler systems at some of these houses could cost between $85,000 and $100,000. Hicks said adding a sprinkler system at $2.50 a square foot in a 8,000 square-foot house would only be $20,000.

“We are very cognizant of the cost of this,” Hicks said. “But we also have to look at what is safe for our students and residents.”

Fourth Ward Alderman Brendon Gallagher suggested having a subsidy for property owners to help pay for the sprinkler system. Povlsen said he was also concerned by the costs, but he added that he would not vote against the ordinance simply because of that.

The City Council is scheduled to discuss the issue at their Monday meeting.

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