An ordinance that would mandate the licensing of rental housing units with the exception of owner-occupied two-flats seems to be retracing its steps: Having been discussed twice at Planning and Development Committee meetings (on July 25 and Nov. 14), the ordinance will now be reviewed by a subcommittee to be appointed by Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl. Corporation Counsel Grant Farrar, who acknowledged that the ordinance could use some revision, will bring a new ordinance to the subcommittee before the end of the month, and the subcommittee will have a report within 90 days.

A City ordinance makes it illegal for three or more unrelated persons to live in a dwelling unit. Supporters of the ordinance, including at least two aldermen, have said it is needed to prevent dangerous overcrowding and is thus a safety measure. Licensing, the City says, would give City staff access to information about rental properties and their owners and would thus facilitate both inspections and giving notice of violations of property standards.

City figures show that Evanston has 13,486 rental dwelling units located within 2,426 multi-family buildings. According to a Nov. 11 City staff memo, the number of rental units is increasing because of fallout from the economic crisis. Foreclosures and other aspects of the ongoing economic crisis have increase the demand for property-standards inspectors.

Information provided in the rental licensing applications would allow City staff access to information about the ownership of rental units, among other things.

The licensing fee, moreover, would help offset the cost of these inspections, the City said. In this fiscal year, according to the City, the “cost of the Housing Code Compliance Program … was $603,408,” offset in part by the collection of $70,340 in rental building registration fees.”

Critics of the licensing ordinance say they fear licensing is the first step to measuring “over-occupancy.” The City has said the issue of overcrowding has been a problem in areas where Northwestern University students live off campus.

During the Citizen Comment period on Nov. 14, Lisa Tildes, who said she owns “five properties in the Fireman’s Park neighborhood,” said she had no objection to paying the fee [about $25 per year], but she felt that “licensing as a way to enforce the brothel law is a poor way to go.”

Jane Evans said, “This is not about the students [overcrowding into rental units]– it’s about the landlords. … [The City is saying] ‘It’s OK not to maintain property; it’s OK to maintain unsafe living conditions.’”

Another resident said the City “needs oversight with licensing. … Licensing is a good excuse to check on how many people are living in an apartment.”

One provision in the proposed ordinance would allow the City to pull the license of any property owner violating the ordinance and evict the tenants. Some aldermen said they wondered whether the City had the authority to evict tenants.

Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, said he had “a lot of reservations” about the proposed ordinance. He said he thought inspection of every single rental dwelling unit was “not [possibly] available.”

Review by a mayoral-appointed subcommittee appeared to be a compromise Council members could accept. the proposed new ordinance is to be before Council on Nov. 28, and the subcommittee’s recommendations may be available around March of next year.

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...