At the Jan. 29 City Council meeting, several alderman signaled a willingness to amend or perhaps even eliminate the Evanston ordinance prohibiting more than three unrelated persons from residing in a housing unit.

In recent decades, the ordinance applies largely to Northwestern students who banded together to rent larger units or homes near the campus. Several students addressed Council at the meeting, telling stories of how landlords abuse the ordinance, holding it over tenants’ heads as a threat rather than as a protection of tenant rights.

One NU student told of a group of students who were ordered to pay an additional $1,000 “or you will be evicted.” Student tenants felt they could not call the City to report unsafe living conditions because four tenants lived in a unit.

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said City Council needed to “put on our big-girl pants. … We have to come into this century.” She suggested a rule tying the number of residents in a unit to the unit’s square footage. She also suggested an immediate tweak to the ordinance, shifting from three to four unrelated persons in a unit.

“I completely agree with Alderman Rainey,” said Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward. He then took things a step further. “A couple of months, ago I suggested we completely repeal the three unrelated” ordinance. He called it “an antiquated rule [that] only works to presuppose unrelated tenants are going to behave badly… [and] allows bad landlords to take advantage of people.” He renewed his call to eliminate the law completely.

“This ordinance has had its day in the sun, and it’s time to put it to rest,” said Ald. Wilson.

Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, has long been the most vocal City Council proponent of the “three-unrelated” ordinance. At the Jan. 29 meeting, she initially tried to shift the conversation from the ordinance to an expansion of the City’s rooming-house ordinance. “We have had very strong success in my ward with shared rooming house,” she said. “There is an owner in that house,” she added, calling the owner’s presence “extremely helpful.”

Ald. Fiske questioned whether concerns were unique to the First and Fifth wards, saying Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward understood, because she received the same or similar calls from residents.

Ald. Rue Simmons agreed – to a point. “I am concerned with the way [the ordinance] is being managed now, and I am concerned about the conditions our students are living in.” She called for a community discussion, saying she had already scheduled such a conversation for the Fireman’s Park neighborhood. She invited Ald. Fiske to be a part of the meeting.

Ald. Rue Simmons told the RoundTable her concerns were more about student living conditions, though, and less about the three-unrelated rule. “I want to focus on protecting tenants from being vulnerable to landlords who treat them unfairly because of the” three-unrelated law, she said.

Alderman Tom Suffredin, 6th Ward, agreed, telling the RoundTable he thinks the City should look into changing the three-unrelated law and focus more on enforcing existing nuisance laws such as noise and garbage ordinances.

No ordinance changes have been proposed as yet – the matter was part of a larger affordable housing discussion. But with several aldermen openly calling for changes, it seems likely a revised ordinance will be in the works shortly.